Giovanni Battista Gaiani (1619) – An Italian Perspective on Competitive Fencing

Giovanni Battista Gaiani (1619) – An Italian Perspective on Competitive Fencing


The relative benefit and importance of competition in modern HEMA is a frequent subject of debate. Despite differences in context, it is arguable that historical perspectives might usefully inform present discussions. This article reviews some examples of competitive fencing, primarily from Italian sources, and in particular Giovanni Battista Gaiani’s Arte di maneggiar la spada a piedi et a cavallo from 1619.1

There is a long, well-documented history of public contests at arms in Italy, both plebeian2 and patrician.3 Throughout this history, the boundaries between performative and purely practical fighting were often permeable.

During knightly exhibitions of arms, combats ad oltranza, with unrebated weapons, were at times functionally indistinguishable from judicial duels, or duels of honour.4 Conversely, until prohibited in 1563 by the Council of Trent, judicial duels could themselves be huge spectacles.5

Even the routine practice of fencing could be subject to public view. A Venetian ordinance of 1477 confined the instruction of fencing to groups within public halls, in the busiest parts of the city, with no private or secret rooms.6

Knightly contests, although progressively tamed and subsumed in pageantry, endured well into the seventeenth century,7 by which time rapier fencing accompanied the traditional jousts and foot lists.8 Despite the increasing abstraction of such tournaments, they continued to be viewed as preparations for war.

John Rigby Hale notes the surprisingly prominent role of tournaments in the military academies of the seventeenth century:

… the military academies of the terraferma, then, were rather more in the nature of finishing schools for young nobles and clubs for their elders than training establishments for future cavalry officers. The potential military usefulness was there, but it was chiefly expressed in the giostre on which the academies spent so much of their time and money.9 [emphasis added].


As well as preparations for war, such displays were seen as opportunities to win honour in their own right. Indeed they appeared a surer path to glory than war, where gallantry might pass unobserved in the mêlée. In 1528 Castiglione recommends that in battle his ideal courtier should display prowess “if possible under the very eyes, of the prince he is serving”.10 While in tournaments, he describes this interplay of valour, performance and recognition as follows:

Weapons are also often used in various sports during peacetime, and gentlemen often perform in public spectacles before the people and before ladies and great lords … he should put every effort and diligence into surpassing the rest just a little in everything, so that he may be recognized as superior. … But above all, he should accompany his every act with a certain grace and fine judgement if he wishes to earn that universal regard which everyone covets.11

MarozzoThis emphasis on elegant, aesthetic fencing is echoed by Manciolino in 1531, who provides distinct advice for fighting with sharps compared to friendly contests. For the former Manciolino suggests the opponent’s hands as the principal target.12 Whereas for friendly play he describes a varied and expansive system, noting the hands are off-target,13 while hits to the head are worth three points and hits to the foot two points, given the skill required to strike them.14 Giovanni Battista Della Valle confirms this logic, explaining that hand-hits are not counted, as they are too easy to accomplish.15

By the seventeenth century, the military applications of fencing had been largely deemphasised.16 Senese, in 1660, describes four types of fencing, each requiring a different approach.

First recreational fencing against friends or respected opponents, which calls for restraint and modesty. Second non-lethal fencing against other opponents, where the blows “have to speak for themselves, without leaving any excuse”. Third the duel with sharps, and finally self-defence, against one or more opponent.17

Sword & Dagger

Gaiani in 1619 further defines three types of non-lethal contest, termed the assalto d’honore.18 The first is a display in front of a lord or grand personage. Gaiani states that everything a master does is for practical gain or honour. Teaching is performed for the mutual benefit of master and student. However when called to exhibit his worth in this manner, a master fences to protect or enhance his reputation.

In this instance the master seeks to display his knowledge, fencing with courtesy and respect. However if his opponent attempts to beat him “by any means necessary”, it is permissible to respond in kind. Capodivacca makes much the same observation in 1704,19 although Gaiani adds that should the intensity increase in this manner, a judicious lord will quickly end the contest.

Marozzo IIThe second sort of assalto d’honore is to satisfy a gentleman skilled in fencing, who wishes to test himself against a master. Gaiani’s advice to the master is to show, rather than land the hits, or to hit only lightly, but to apply all of his knowledge and wiles, because it is unbecoming for a master to be overcome by a non-master. In contrast the gentleman fencer’s reputation is perhaps less at risk. Manciolino notes that against an esteemed opponent, honour can be won even in defeat: “Because just as the glory of the victor depends on the valour of the defeated, so loss is not reproachful if adorned by the fame of the victor.”20

The final assalto d’honore is where a master is provoked to defend his reputation, with a bout to demonstrate his skill, in front of gentlemen knowledgeable of fencing. Although non-lethal this appears a more serious affair, following some conventions of the formal duel. Gaiani states that it is usual to require an election of weapons, place and time, seconds, and well-versed judges.

Furthermore the bout is bound by a series of precise rules.

  • It is usual for only the first attack and riposte in tempo to be counted.
  • Only thrusts are allowed, and only above the belt.
  • If the fencers arrive into close measure (misura stretta, defined as being able to hit just by extending the arm, with no movement of the foot or lean of the body), the bout is stopped and the fencers must reset, regardless of whether an attack has been attempted or not.
  • As such there is no wrestling, which is seen as a test of physical power and not swordplay.

Gaiani describes that these conditions do not apply in the previous two types of assalto d’honore:

Because this third assault is done properly, to understand which of the two masters has more art and worth. Therefore as far as possible, they are made equal in external factors, such as weapons, and place and time; seconds and judges are elected, and to ensure it does not end badly, an end is placed to their assault.21

The emphasis on the thrust, and the prohibition on the cut and wrestling are revealing. To properly test a master’s worth, an abstracted test of skill is preferred to an attempted simulation of a duel with sharps, notwithstanding that some features of this assalto are directly appropriated from the duel. While the previous two forms of assalto appear largely governed by social convention, the tensions implicit in this third iteration call for more proscriptive rules.

Fencing at court

Gaiani makes further observations regarding non-lethal fencing. Since the purpose of such bouts is to preserve or win honour, there is little sense in facing an unskilled opponent. He notes that a lord worthy of the name would not force a fencer to face “someone not only ignoble and honourless, but with little understanding of this profession”,22 and furthermore advises that such a contest should be refused. Indeed each subtypology of assalto d’honore assumes a skilled opponent.

Elsewhere Gaiani discusses the assalto in the salle, noting that three passes is the norm in schools. This appears to mean the best of three, since he states that fencers should be satisfied if they land one or two good hits, whereas in a duel one alone might suffice.23

Gaiani’s statements on cutting highlight another difference between play and fencing with sharps. He describes how cuts appear to have been “annihilated”,24 but elsewhere notes that with sharps “most attacks” are cuts.25

He explains this apparent paradox by noting that cuts are good in earnest, but not in the salle “between friends”, because of the risk of “injury and offence”.26 Another commonly given explanation is that untutored opponents often cut,27 with multiples sources suggesting that in sixteenth and seventeen-century Italy, most men were not skilled fencers.28

Della Bella II

Unlike the abstracted trials of skill described by Gaiani, modern competitions typically constitute a more general test of technique, judgement and physical ability: often at high intensity, against all comers in an open tournament, prioritising effectiveness over stylistic purity, with few if any restrictions on allowable technique. Arguably this style of contest is made more practicable by modern safety equipment.

Modern tournaments do not purport to simulate lethal combat, but many criticisms of modern tournaments find antecedents in historical accounts of duels and street fights. For example:

  • Limited displays of manual technique. This recalls Manciolino’s advice to target the hands in a fight with sharps, and Gaiani’s observation that one attack may suffice in a duel. In contrast both masters emphasise elegance and exhibition of skill in salle play, or in exhibition bouts, such as the first sort of assalto d’honore.
  • Double hits. While clearly not desirable, a number of sources suggest these were not uncommon in contemporary duels.29 During the assalto d’honore, this was controlled simply by halting the bout at close measure, where double hits were positively expected.
  • Wild attacks from aggressive opponents. A number of treatises suggest that reckless, aggressive opponents were a common hazard in duels.30 However Gaiani states that a judicious lord should stop an overly frenetic bout at court. This condition is not imposed in the more serious, third type of assalto d’honore, where the intensity was instead governed by a narrow ruleset.
  • Variations in skill level. As mentioned above most men were not skilled fencers, and in duels some men would trust to their strength and courage alone. Gaiani can only conceive of facing capable fencers in a non-lethal contest, and observes that no lord should insist otherwise.
  • A perceived excess of cutting in rapier. Gaiani is one of several sources to note that cutting was common in lethal combat, but relatively uncommon in the salle. In the third variety of assalto, cuts are explicitly prohibited.

Viewed from this perspective, it is unfair to expect modern tournaments to inevitably showcase manual-perfect technique and vast repertoire. This holds modern HEMA tournaments to a higher standard than either historical fights with sharps, or historical contests.

Swordfish 2010

Although impressive performances are certainly possible in modern tournaments, critics should not be surprised if ideal technique is not consistently displayed, given the historical evidence. Duels and street fights, with few if any constraints and often great intensity, evinced many of the “imperfect” features of modern tournaments. Historical bouts privileged elegant fencing, but created the conditions to make this possible, either through a conventional intensity or an abstracted ruleset.

Competition was an intrinsic element of historical Italian martial traditions. Success, or performing well against a good opponent, brought honour and prestige. Gaiani and Manciolino, among others, provide a relatively clear and coherent exposition of the format and mentality of historical fencing contests. Historical and modern rulesets reward and incentivise different behaviours, each with their relative merits. If we presume that tournaments are useful and desirable, there is no reason why both models cannot coexist.

1 Gaiani, Giovanni Battista. Arte di maneggiar la spada a piedi et a cavallo, Loano, 1619.

2 Malpiero cites the ludus clavarum in Bologna, the bellum de maççis in Florence, the ludus cum baculis in Arezzo and the mazzascutum in Pisa, see Malpiero, Massimo. Il Fior di battaglia di Fiore dei Liberi da Cividale : il Codice Ludwig XV 13 del J. Paul Getty Museum, Pasian di Prato: Ribis, 2006, p. 49. Indeed Settia describes how variations on the giocho della battagliola (fought with stones, slingshots, clubs and other wooden weapons) were practised in many Italian towns. See Settia, Aldo, A. “Batagloria seu paglorius”. Giochi guerreschi in Piemonte. In Del Negro, Piero and Ortalli, Gherardo (Eds). Il gioco e la guerra nel secondo millennio, Treviso: Viella, 2008, pp. 25-33. Bascetta documents sportive crossbow archery, from the thirteenth to the eighteenth-century in Bascetta, Carlo. Sport e giuochi. Trattati e scritti dal XV al XVIII secolo,  Milan: Polifilo, 1978, Vol. 2, pp. 353-77.

3 Such as the joust, tournament, and more informal bagordo. See for example Balestracci, Duccio. La festa in armi: giostre, tornei e giochi del Medioevo, Rome-Bari: Laterza, 2001.

4 For example the fifteenth-century Catalan manuscript Sumari de batalla ha ultransa, closely presages Italian judicial duelling codes, down to the exchange of cartels and giving of the lie. See Ferrer, Pere Joan. Sumari de batalla ha ultransa. Transcribed in Bohigas, Pere (ed.). Tractats de cavalleria, Barcino: Barcelona, 1947, pp. 155-75. See also Cavina, Marco. Il sangue dell’onore. Storia del duello, Rome-Bari: Laterza, 2001, pp. 38-40.

5 Although undoubtedly an exaggeration, the duel between Camillo Forno and Lanfranco Fontana in 1558 is reported as drawing twenty thousand spectators. See Bryson, Frederick R. The Sixteenth-Century Italian Duel. A Study in Renaissance Social History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938, p. 191.

6 Part of a wide-reaching series of measures intended to combat sodomy. See Ruggiero, Guido. The Boundaries of Eros. Sex Crime and Sexuality in Renaissance Venice, New York, Oxford University Press, 1985, p. 138.

7 Gaiani himself wrote a treatise on combat at the barriers. See Gaiani, Giovanni Battista. Discorso del tornear a piedi, Genoa, 1619. See also Anglo, Sydney. The Barriers: From Combat to Dance (Almost). In Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research Vol. 25, No. 2, The Art that All Arts Do Approve: Manifestations of the Dance Impulse in High Renaissance Culture. Studies in Honour of Margaret M. McGowan , Winter, 2007, pp. 91-106.

8 See Del Negro, Piero. L’Accademia Delia e gli esercizi cavallereschi della nobilità padovana nel Seicento e Settecento. In Del Negro, Piero and Ortalli, Gherardo (Eds). Il gioco e la guerra nel secondo millennio, Treviso: Viella, 2008, p.65.

9 Hale, John Rigby. Renaissance War Studies, London: Hambledon Press, 1983, pp. 301-302.

10 Castiglione, Baldesar. The Book of the Courtier. Translated by Bull, George. London: Penguin, 2003, p. 115.

11 Ibid., pp. 62-3.

12 Manciolino, Antonio. Opera nova dove li sono tutti documenti & vantaggi che si ponno havere nel mestier de l’armi d’ogni sorte novamente corretta & stampata, Venice, 1531. pp. 3-4.

13 Ibid., p. 3.

14 Ibid., p. 7.

15 Della Valle, Giovanni Battista. Vallo, libro continente appertinente à Capitani retenere & fortificare una Città con bastioni etc., 3rd Edn, Venice, 1534, p. 58.

16 Although not entirely. For example the third and final section of Gaiani’s treatise deals with fencing from horseback, not least in a military context. Gaiani, Arte di maneggiar la spada, pp. 77-117.

17 Senese, Alessandro. Il vero maneggio di spada, Bologna, 1660. pp. 6-7.

18 Gaiani, Arte di maneggiar la spada, pp. 5-8.

19 Capodivacca, Paolo. Massime et avvertimenti da praticarsi nella scherma, Padua, 1704. pp. 11-2.

20 Manciolino, Opera nova, p. 3. Unless otherwise noted all translations are the author’s.

21 Gaiani, Arte di maneggiar la spada, pp. 6-7.

22 Ibid., p. 7.

23 Ibid., p. 43.

24 Ibid., p.34. Nontheless a majority of contemporary masters instruct on cutting, and at least one contemporary account describes heavy cutting in the salle: Whenever a master has his students cut and fight against each other, if he sees one who is so capable, that no others are comparable to face him, the master takes his sword, and fights him himself. Someone without experience who witnessed this, would easily believe that the master hates this student. But someone with experience, would say the master does him a great favour in dealing him great blows, since it is all done for practice, and so he is aware of his ability. Aresi, Paolo, Della tribolatione, e suoi rimedi etc., Venice, 1636. p. 590.

25 Gaiani, Arte di maneggiar la spada, p. 32.

26 Ibid., p. 35.

27 See for example Senese, Il vero maneggio di spada, p. 50.

28 For example the Florentine master Altoni (circa 1540) notes that: in the schools almost the majority of those who practice do not have the patience to learn how to defend themselves, rather they quickly turn their eye, hand and spirit towards other things. Altoni, Francesco di Sandro. Monomachia: trattato dell’arte di scherma. Edited by Alessandro Battistini, Massimo (sic) Rubboli, and Iacopo Venni. Rimini: Il Cerchio, 2007. p. 61.

29 See for example Maffani, Giovanni Battista. Compendio e discorso di tutto quello, in che consiste la virtu delle spada con tutt’i modi è termini, che deve havere, tener’ e possieder un professore di questa virtù, Vienna, 1629, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Cod. 10784. pp. 214-219.

30 For example Falloppia, Alfonso. Nuovo et brieve modo di schermire, Bergamo, 1584. pp. 11-2.



  1. Good article, although I come to a different conclusion.
    If modern HEMA tournaments do not place a focus on skillful fencing then they are lacking either in terms of rules, the skill level of the competitors, their general mindset regarding what a tournament really should be, or a combination of all of the above.
    All of this could be changed, and IMO it should.

  2. Hi Jörg and thanks for the feedback. I too think it would be fun and interesting to see more historically-inspired tournaments. I wouldn’t say the rules and mentality of modern tournaments are necessarily lacking though, just different. It’s a case of understanding the differences and deciding what we want to test. Historical rulesets tend to isolate particular fencing skills, whereas modern tournaments tend to present a fight with very few restrictions. Both have their merit, but don’t be surprised if a bout with few restrictions is not always elegant, or not always flashy – as Manciolino points out hitting the hands is often a safe and efficient strategy. In terms of skill level there will always be variations. Ranked tournaments are possible if people want them, but there is also an appeal to inviting all comers.

  3. Well, my personal ‘mission’ is to preserve the Art in it’s entirety.

    Competition has it’s place, so has technical/artful fencing and to a degree sheer ‘combat effective’ swordfighting.

    But since self-defence or duelling with a sharps sword is pretty much a non-issue today, no one today trains with swords because he has to be prepared to defend his life sword in hand in a duel, a self-defence situation or a battle (which was the primary reason for training back then) .

    That also means for me that I have neither the necessity nor the will to risk my health by getting injured by someone who feel he has the need to ‘prove’ something.
    My boss would certainly not be amused if I come home from a tournament with one hand in a cast.

    If a display of a high level of skill, grace and control was highly regarded in a tournament back then I don’t see the need to shift the focus towards trying to win at all costs nowadays.

    If one really wants to fight, my advise is to join the Army. 😉

  4. That’s fair enough, and chimes with historical sensibilites towards competitive bouting. I’m interested in artful fencing, but also on how people fence under heavy pressure. When both happen together it can be sublime.

    Of course modern tournaments can still be refined. 2 point hits seemed to benefit rapier at the last swordfish, and there are lots of continuing debates: doubles, afterblows, judging, what’s a scoring hit, etc.

  5. I have to chime in with Jorg, this is an excellent article, but also an apologia for the problems (as opposed to the merits) of modern tournaments. You might look at di Grassi’s advice that in combat one does not skip, hop or leap, and contrast that with the photo above.

    To start, although I’ve been criticized in the past for my views on the current HEMA tournament scene, I have participated in tournaments (modern fencing, SCA combat, kendo) for two decades, and I have a collection of knick-knacks and memorabilia from tournament wins in my twenties. I have hosted a number of HEMA tournaments, as early as 1999, and continue to do so.

    So I am not anti-tournament, I simply see them as what they are, which is a good *agonistic* test of performance under adrenaline and internal pressure. I also recognize them for what they are not: combat. Therefore, to me, as someone whose interest in these arts is as lethal disciplines and cultural treasures, not a modern sport, tournaments are adjunct training and must be in service to understanding the art, not a goal in and of themselves. That is why, as a community, I feel that we spend far too much time on tournaments and should spend more time training and understanding these arts in the context.

    Tournament combat has always differed from real fighting, whether that is 16th c swordplay or modern MMA. However, there is an important distinction here: 16th c tournament play was a singular datapoint of combat, that combined with academic sala fencing, dueling, self-defense and warfare. We are divorced from three of those elements: the three that we might recall were the ones for which the art was originally created, and two of which (the duel and war) that many masters considered the “most noble”. Thus, the more we allow tournaments to cheerfully diverge from what we know of lethal techniques and apply scoring conventions that, as you state, “Modern tournaments do not purport to simulate lethal combat”, the more the problem perpetuates.

    How do we know that? We have other combat sports to look at: boxing, wrestling, modern fencing and kendo. The latter is quite notable since it was adjunct training to a living sword art until the late 19th c, and then went through a massive reorganization of sensibilities post WWII and has been struggling with the fact that high-level practitioners only grudgingly practice the ten formal kata (Ie; sala techniques), cannot cut with a real sword, and use a simulator that does not handle much like a real sword. Combined with safety gear, they often rely on speed to land a hit rather than a safe defense.

    Western fencing tried to develop a means of instilling both sets of skills with using rules of priority for foil and none for epee, simulating the science of fencing and then the application of anything goes combat. It worked well until the Olympics….

    Finally, there is another difference, which is the amount of gear we use vs 16th c bouts. We see an emphasis on raw speed and power, little on defense. We might contrast that with what a bout fought with a padded doublet and little to no hand or head protection would look like. Then we might ask why so much of fencing technique works from the bind, and work from the bind happens so rarely in tournament play. Why should it when I can safely leave the bind?

    Again, these have been concerns in sword arts – east and west – for centuries, as you beautifully illustrate. The problem is, we have no living application of the art to counterbalance what tournament display offers. So we either find a way to emphasize and train those elements, or we accept that, just like modern fencing, kendo or SCA combat or kendo, do we want a full-contact sword sport that is fast, furious and athletic, but clearly a break from the original fighting art. There is no one “right” answer to that question, nor must people only do one or the other. But we *should* accept that the community has already fractured in that way, and that as tournaments evolve, those that move further from trying to understand the brevity and brutality of combat will develop certain attributes (distance, timing, physical attributes), but will not be “more real” or more indicative of “good swordsmanship”. Otherwise, the best HEMA swordsmen in the world today are Olympic fencers and national and international kendo champions. The are hundreds of thousands of people in their pool and the best of them are world-class athletes; never mind that they can’t cut with a sharp weapon, execute a disarm or often even care about parrying.

    None of which makes this article any less interesting or well-researched Piermarco! Very enjoyable.

  6. Hi Greg,

    Thanks for the feedback, I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

    You raise lots of issues, but I come away wondering if disagreements over the nature of tournaments are sometimes overstated.

    If we agree that competition was always part of HEMA (which I see an abundance of evidence for) and that competition continues to be useful, everything else is a question of emphasis and degree.

    Tournaments can be a motivation, but if it gets people training harder and going to events then that’s not inherently a bad thing, as long as we keep perspective as you say.

    I would say historic-type and modern tournaments fulfill different niches, and one or other might not appeal to everyone. So if we develop these abstracted, skills-focused tournaments to provide an additional emphasis, it can only be a good thing, and as a community make us more rounded.

    As far as I can see most people agree that tournaments are not the be all and end all, and I’m not aware of any HEMA groups who train principally for tournament. Conversely almost everyone who consistently gets to later stages of tournaments are serious HEMAists, who study the sources (either directly or via their instructors).

    It’s ironic even, that nowadays almost everyone (including staunch advocates) describes the benefits of tournament in terms of training and personal development, but Gaiani and the other ancients don’t conceive of it in those terms at all. For them it actually was all about the glory and honour!

    • >As far as I can see most people agree that tournaments are not the be all and end all, and I’m >not aware of any HEMA groups who train principally for tournament. Conversely almost >everyone who consistently gets to later stages of tournaments are serious HEMAists, who >study the sources (either directly or via their instructors).

      This is where we have to disagree. Having watched some of the Swordfish streaming and some of the comments by the competitors as to how they were prepared for the tournaments, I would say that they were specifically training for a *game*, not a martial encounter. Likewise, I continue to see tournament bouts where literally unidentifiable guards (well, relative to the supposed system being used) and tactics directly contradictory to the system are being used but they work in a ring, and are then used as *proof* that the sources are either a) wrong or b) should be reconsidered on the simplest level (like what does “step forward” mean). And yet, because some of these folks are placing well in tournaments that is meant to be “authority” equivalent to actual fidelity with doing what the sources say. (Which is itself a bit spurious, since some of these tournaments are quite small and have the same group of combatants time and time again.)

      It’s self-delusion, much as we saw in the larger martial arts world where the popularity of BJJ led to assertions that “all fights go to the ground” and “no one can defend themselves against multiple opponents anyway”. Why? Because BJJ is a ring sport maximized for single encounters. It is also largely useless in the street or defending against weapons.

      So until strikers learned to deal with it, all of a sudden striking had no “combat effectiveness”. To this day you will hear many MMA and BJJ exponents insist that throws, joint locks and breaks “don’t work” in “real combat”, but sweeps, arm bars and chokes do – ignoring that all combat arts from ancient Greece to modern combatives use strikes, throws, and joint destruction, whereas combat sports (again, beginning with the Ancients) used chokes, armbars and pins as “safe” substitute. What is their experience? Tournament fighting. And just like only training forms without pressure testing, it’s misleading.

      “It’s ironic even, that nowadays almost everyone (including staunch advocates) describes the benefits of tournament in terms of training and personal development, but Gaiani and the other ancients don’t conceive of it in those terms at all. For them it actually was all about the glory and honour!”

      Oh, I think we are clearly obsessed with glory and honor, too -or we wouldn’t be obsessed with tournaments, live video feeds, declaring who is the “World this or that”. We have events that focus their reviews on talking about the tournaments and who won, rather than what was taught. Now we have cutting competitions, and I am sure forms competitions will start soon. In a very short time, we have recreated the Asian martial arts tournament scene. So if someone think that was good for Asian arts, then they will like it for Western ones. Personally, I think it is neutral as a rule, but has been destructive in arts that have specialized in forms vs fighting – like TKD and karate, or have created weapon sparring rules that allow many hits in a timed round – like some forms of Flilipino martial arts.

      But regardless of what we do or don’t create – the difference is that in Gaiani’s day there was a very good reality check for mistaking play fighting for real fighting: duels. We don’t have that, nor do we have teachers who have ever fought one. (And people have backed away from even the greater attention and pressure of martial challenges for the more anonymous participation in tournaments.) So we have additional needs to not mistake what works on the tournament field from what may or may not be good self-defense.

      Where I think we do agree is that the more options there are, and the less people try to create a “standard rules-set” the better off we all are.

  7. One point of clarification: I’m not criticizing the competitors at Swordfish for training to win, nor for participating. I am simply pointing out that if one looks at what gets promoted about events, or how competitors talk about their training, there is clearly a specific, growing emphasis on training specifically to compete. The overall focus conversation really is exactly like being back in sport fencing, but with better swords or the SCA, with less interest in historical material culture but more knowledge of fightbooks.

  8. Of course tournaments are *games*, that was true then and it is now. But the ancients still put a lot of attention in them, even when the games became quite abstracted. It’s also interesting that Senese for example doesn’t make a discreet distinction between the killing arts and play, they are different expressions of fencing.

    If people use tournament success to slag of the treatises that annoying, but it hasn’t been my experience with HEMAist at all, more likely from people with lots of experience from another discipline who takes part in open tournaments.

    I agree it’s a shame martial challenges didn’t take off, but that’s just another form of competitive fencing.

    And yes we have to be realistic, and realise tournaments are imperfect, but they are part of our martial tradition, and we’d be even more impoverished without them, so we may as well make the best out of them.

    • Senese makes no distinction, because Senese taught a living, martial tradition where people still fought with swords. We don’t. Look at that last photo in your article. It is either sword and dagger or rapier and dagger. It is great athleticism; it is shameful as swordsmanship. It violates what we are told repeatedly, it violates good body mechanics and how you transfer power with swords. It is good athleticism, it is *bad* swordsmanship. But it scored a point.

      The idea that under pressure “it is all different and tournaments had different rules, so anything goes,” has been used by reenactors, the SCA and many others to make excuses for anything they do in the list. But just because targets might change, one might use more or less cuts, or might be more aggressive, that doesn’t mean that suddenly he forgot how to lunge properly, or used footwork that belongs in a modern la canne match.

      Put another way, George Silver’s criticisms of rapier fencing are the same things that Italian masters tell us about bad rapier fencing. That suggests, as you suggest, that there were a lot of poorly trained swordsmen? So what? Is that what we want our tournaments to display? Athleticism with poor understanding of basic skills? That is very low standard to set.

      I agree that you may not see a vast repertoire of techniques, and that sometimes necessity of free play means you might be off balance or out of position. But the bulk of the fight should cleanly show the core actions. Somehow who bobs his sword and dagger point up and down like a boxer doesn’t understand the teachings on tempo, and an opponent who doesn’t capitalize on it doesn’t either. A lunge-recovery isn’t negotiable – there is no excuse for an airborne swordsman in an art that teaches grounded fighting; a Liecthenauer fencer being unable to execute the five blows correctly, with reasonable footwork and balance shouldn’t be fighting in a tournament; he or she should be training.

      That doesn’t make me anti-tournament; as I said, I’ve been involved in various forms of tournaments for decades, and held some of the first WMA/HEMA tournaments in the US that were not attached to some sort of reenactment/Ren Faire. I also host a yearly armoured tournament, something that doesn’t really seem to be a part of European events at all. It just makes me think that a) the overall level of work to be done on interpretation, refinement and training is still high, b) the skill level of the average HEMAtist is growing but still low and c) we are mistaking the importance or roll of tournaments in a martial art, and make a mistake in letting the problems of a and b influence c.

      But all of that only matters if you are a traditionalist who is interested in the art in its pure form: as a fighting discipline that was meant to be used in self-defense, duels *and* for sport. If the goal or focus is combat sport, then honestly, it can evolve however one wants.

      Thank you for the discussion!

      Best wishes,


      • Hi Greg,
        If you look closely at the photo the guy leaping is getting stabbed clean. Someone’s trying something in one particular moment, which didn’t work, I wouldn’t read too much into it.

        Of course we should aim for a high standard, but personally I think relative newcomers should be allowed to enter tournaments, in which case we shouldn’t expect perfection. But the overall level is improving, so I’m optimistic. Gaiani however disagrees and only wants experienced fencers to compete. If we want to see an exposition of skill I agree that martial challenges, or a ranked, exhibition or invitational tournament is a better forum than open tournament, although there is a democratic appeal to allowing all comers.

        I would argue however that even in Gaiani’s day they had many of the same issues, which is why a judicious lord would stop fencers who tried to win at all costs, or seconds would restart fencers who arrived into misura stretta.

        Anyway if your not anti-tournament but have some concerns that’s fine, I wrote the article to highlight and compare the characteristics of old and new contests, not so much to reopen old polemics. While personally I think modern tournaments have their merits, it wouldn’t hurt to explore the sorts of contests described by Gaiani, or to integrate some of these elements into our existing tournaments where it fits.

        Thanks for the discussion :-)


  9. Fun to see that the arguments haven’t changed much! From my perspective, you train to develop skill so that you can use that skill effectively against a wilder opponent. (I dislike the idea of points for form). In the heat of the moment your form should be your form, regardless of whether you facing off against a rabid street fighter. If it’s not effective, either it’s a defect in your personal level of training, or a defect in your teacher’s ability. The whole purpose of learning to fence is to reprogram your neurology to respond as effectively as possible, which takes years of repetition against many different opponents of different levels.
    If you look at Olympic fencing, you see a very high level of intensity (didn’t Smirnov die of being run through the face with a foil in ’84?) , but no compromise in form and accuracy.

    • Jeff,

      Nadi would disagree. In his one duel, his form failed but his training got the job done.


  10. *Fun to see that the arguments haven’t changed much! * Lol :-).

    I agree, fencing to maintain form at tournament intensity is a useful exercise/pressure test. Easier said than done, but a worthwhile aim to train towards. When someone pulls off the harder manual techniques at high intensity it makes it all the sweeter.

    Having said that operating at maximum adrenaline is one aspect, and other people are more interested in artful fencing, which is going to be more characteristic of historic-type bouts.

    • In my opinion, and experience, in fencing form is function (at any rate, “good” form is functional). For instance, as a general rule the front foot should be aligned with the body’s vector of motion (the open-hip footwork we see in Meyer & Paurenfeyndt is a special case), because it is the most efficient way to stop the body in balance, and then to recover in the opposite direction. It also reduces the likelihood of injury to the tendons of the knee.

      Letting your form be built ad-hoc based on ‘what works’ will lead to diminishing returns and a relatively low-plateau of skill. The basic idea is similar to the concept of the local vs. global maximum in calculus and function optimization: You may reach a local maximum very quickly based on doing “what works”. However, you can only reach the global maximum if you focus on proper (i.e. biomechanically efficient) form.

      • I agree Dustin! I’m not at all arguing that crashing and bashing is the forward. But I do think rulesets condition the fencing on display to a greater or lesser extent. Even with great form the fencing can be more or less purely pragmatic. I’m sure they took legs and hands out of sabre for the same reason Manciolino prohibited hand shots, although in a combatative sense you would have them in.

  11. It is an interesting article. Your analysis hinges on a particular conception of how swordsmanship works, however. There is “pretty” swordsmanship, what you are calling artful swordsmanship. And then there is “hardcore” swordsmanship, or combative swordsmanship. And, what seems to be implicit in your argument is that these are completely different sets of technique and priority. The fencing seen at tournaments belongs to the hardcore style, and has no obligation to look anything like the pretty stuff.
    There might be some justification for this, particularly much later in history where fencing began to be purely competitive. Earlier in history, though, I can’t see much of a case for it. People had one basic reason for fencing, for self defense in one context or another. A master might play with a student or challenger, someone might invent or use some unlikely technique for use in the sala. But at its base it was all about combat.
    “Artful swordsmanship” is just swordsmanship. It is what is optimized for the situation where two people with swords are trying to hit each other with them. It focuses on good body mechanics and efficient motion. This is graceful and often ends up looking pretty, but that is a side effect rather than a goal. I think if you re-examine your evidence you’ll find that the real combative styles are subsets of the artful stuff. The difference between foil and epee is the archetypal example, if you’ll forgive me for using a classical example, rather than a historical one. Foil has, in general, a much wider range of technique. It has a very specific use in a controlled environment that allows a greater freedom because of its greater safety. Epee has essentially the same basic technique, only some of the larger and riskier stuff is removed as being unsafe in its much more free form setting. I am talking here about the historical case, with foil as a competitive weapon versus epee as a dueling weapon. Epee, because of its nature as a weapon of combat, does not become a larger, more flamboyant weapon. It is smaller, more contained, more efficient. Not larger. Big huge leaping motions merely allow the more artful swordsman a greater opportunity to run you through.

  12. Hi Sean, thanks for your comments. The article is trying to articulate several points at once, so please bear with me :-). I’m inclined to agree with you that at its core fencing is fencing. I do think however that it’s application is conditioned by the context, some contexts being more conductive to artful fencing than others.

    I would also argue that back in the day people did put a lot of emphasis into the salle as opposed to pure self-defence. Let’s face it if you fight a duel to the death, all else being equal you have a <50% chance of survival (either I kill you, you kill me or we kill each other), so you wouldn't expect to fight too many in your lifetime. But fencing was a recreation, a performative art, a valued skill, and part of a gentleman's general education.

    Fencing learned in the salle could be applied to the street, but it needed some bits added, and some bits taken away. Senese is fairly clear on this. You might fence in the salle, the street, or in a duel, and the type of fencing in all of these contexts is different.

    Manciolino gives another good example. He advises hitting the hand in a fight with sharps (and keeping your point forward) but excludes the hands in the salle altogether (and introduces a wider variety of guards).

    Why this different treatment of the hands? Because they are the easiest, most exposed target. Hence the obvious target in a fight with sharps, but too boring for competition. They didn't want to see a hand-sniping contest, and today many people view hand hits as a bit cheap. By removing the hands as a target, Manciolino thought you could attempt more actions safely, while being obliged to go for deeper, more showy targets. Same core skills but one application is more pragmatic, the other more refined and spectacular.

    We could look at cuts in rapier. Most masters preferred thrusts, but an artful exchange of thrusts is more probable in a constrained bout, when you have excluded a whole class of attacks (cuts) altogether, than in an unconstrained encounter. I view this as self-apparent, but it is also supported by period evidence.

    To avoid just restating the arguments in the article, and giving the same examples, I would quote Jacopo Monesi, a Florentine who wrote a short treatise in 1640.

    He states that some view cuts as the blows of crude brutes ("villani"), and that very often cuts are prohibited in the salle. Monesi is sharply critical of this practice (shades of George Silver) and notes that in duels the most wounds are caused by cuts to the hand, arm and face (c.f. Gaiani, most attacks in duels are cuts).

    He goes on to say that in Tuscany some gentlemen, upon putting their hands to their swords, make a pact not use cuts (in a fight with sharps!). For Monesi this is clear evidence that a) cuts are in fact dangerous and to be feared (duh!) b) the fencing these gentleman have learned in the salle isn't sufficient for dealing with (or delivering) cuts. In other words they are not confident to just "do their thing" against a class of attacks that changes the rules of engagement. In this instance, salle fencing has not fully prepared them.

    Now experienced technical fencers, at best, can hope to apply their skills under heavy pressure, and against unorthodox or rash attacks (but not infallibly, or they'd be no doubles in Olympic épée). However in an open tournament there will always be a variety of experience levels. Moreover some people are very effective based on general ability, command of timing and distance, a limited repertoire applied well, and/or aggression and athleticism. This is all fine in itself, but if the primary aim is an exposition of "artful", technical fencing, historical evidence suggests you'll see it more consistently using a different model.

  13. Very interesting approach to the historical records of sport fencing in the Italy. Thanks my friend.

  14. It seems to me that the cut was removed due in no small way to technology not being up there where cuts could be safely delivered. We have better safety equipment now, and the swords are made constructed so that we have little risk of an actual sharp edge being used. I very much feel that historical play should always lean to the historical side to answer questions, and less toward a sporting side. Meaning, if they emphasized the art of the sword as a greater life goal than racking up wins, then we should take that into account. Having fighters announce their training or their school of fence might be a good idea. In a karate tournament, you are competing in the school that you are belted in, and judges check your form. We could do something similar. I would at least start out with someone announcing to the public that they follow such and such a school, and let their display speak for its self. Kind of an ultimate in peer review. However, I would absolutely include cuts in any display, since it’s a part of the art too.

  15. I’ve read the above article and your comments with great interest. When I started fencing, back in the 70’s, we were taught the classical style with an emphasis on form & technique. This served me pretty well in competitive epee throughout the 80’s even though as an athlete I’m a very good artist.

    After a 24 year hiatus I started historical fencing with the SCA in 2010. Yes, I know the rules limit technique. However, my point is this: I turned 55 this year. Most of the people I fence with are in their teens or 20’s. We have a few “older folks” in their 30’s & 40’s. In comparison I am old, slow & 50 lbs overweight (One must be realistic about these things). None the less I manage to hold my own. In part this is due to early training by first rate instructors. Mostly I rely on the principles & techniques of Cappo Ferro & Giganti with some Di Grassi, Saviolo & Agrippa thrown in.

    All I have are proper form, some of the basic techniques & the concepts of line, tempo & measure. Imagine what somebody with real athletic ability could do.

  16. Hi Jay,

    Glad you enjoyed the article, and I’m glad to hear your fencing is enjoyable and going well against younger guys, based on your skill. If athleticism was all there was, there would be little point actually studying fencing :-)

  17. Thanks for the research on this. Interesting bit we have overlooked. I often tell my students that we know the “What”, and the “How” but we seem to totally forget the “Why” in fencing. We worry mostly about winning, but I have always told my students that winning isn’t always the goal of a bout.

    To that end, I get really pissed off with the habits of fencers who run away from fights, or who fight while running backward. I am also a US Army Soldier, trained in hand combat, and one thing we are always told is that you DO NOT go backwards. Backwards is bad. In a hand to hand fight, you move through the opponent. In HEMA and SCA fighting, I see too many fencers remove themselves from the fight all together, using distance as their defense and not proper defense as their defense. It ends up with one opponent, (lets’ call him Me) running as fast as I can wile the other guy goes backwards at a rate faster than I can sprint after them. The intent of course is to not get hit by me. I find that attitude kind of sad. I like hitting people, and if they didn’t want to be hit, why are you holding a sword in front of me :)

    In historical context, what is there to be said about people that backpedal, or run backwards out of measure at all attacks? I feel the appropriate answer is to only go backwards if measure is to be maintained, or the other guy is trying to press to close measure, but only so far as to gain control of the blade and then make a hit. In that way, I would advise to never use measure to move out of measure to avoid the attack, rather only seek to use measure only as much as needed to gain distance to make a control or counter attack, not be removed totally from the fight .
    Any thoughts on that?

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