Ours are fighting systems that are under (re)construction. Those of us who consider themselves researchers ponder their brains out in order to understand martial instruction from the past – often several hundred years old– preserved in old books and pictures. This may sound a daunting task, but the last decades show that it is not hopeless. In the case of some fighting systems with a broad source base, such as the medieval German Kunst des Fechtens or the modern era Scottish broadsword, we have been able to reach a level of understanding in which controversies revolve around tactical and technical details rather than “How on Earth do I look like the way this picture shows?”
However, although we for some traditions already have enough basic motions, underlying principles, and tactical concepts to create a training curriculum, we are left with little to no clue on what the training historically looked like. Was it conducted in large synchronised groups as we see today in some Asian martial arts or done only privately on a master-and-student basis? In the case of the latter, we do not know whether they did coached sparring, slow-play, supervised solo drills, pell work, paired exercises, or all of it.
Some martially flavoured group performances are confirmed by historical sources: the Schwerttanze (‘sword dances’) of medieval guilds, parades, and common military drills were commonplace in medieval and early modern towns. Nevertheless, their actual martial content is either unknown or highly conventional.
We also have accounts about competitive fighting (e.g. Fechtschulen in Germany) organised and supervised by certified fencing masters. Those masters also provided instruction and ran schools, but again – little do we know about their training methodology. According to findings presented in an interesting article by Alessandro Battistini and Niki Corradetti, a renowned municipal fencing master in 15th-century Bologna could cater for up to 20 students at a time providing each with intensive theoretical and practical martial instruction for up to 12 months. Considering that each student was expected to train for 2 hours a day, six days a week, it would be impossible for the master to teach all of them individually all the time. Therefore, we may suppose that he either hired some other masters or his own senior students to help him run the course or relied on group instruction heavily. Sadly, we still know nothing about what were his exact training methods.
On the other hand, medieval German and Italian masters, such as Hans Talhoffer or Fiore de’i Liberi, earned their living partially by training accused persons for judicial duels. In such a specific case instruction had to be very intense, since trainees were assigned no more than a few weeks to prepare for the fight. It therefore had to be focused on maximising efficiency in but a handful of actions and not learning the whole art – the latter was to stay with the master. Secrecy in teaching was also advisable to ensure the opposing party will be unaware of the planned tactics. To sum up, this by all probability required individual lessons.
As indicated by this introduction, although little methodological information can be directly extracted from the sources we have on hand, we can be quite sure that group instruction as well as individual lessons were known to fencing masters of yore. And while it is our task as researchers, practitioners, and – especially – instructors to try to develop modern training methods allowing us to preserve our reconstructed martial arts and the related embodied knowledge for future generations, we should seek inspiration from both modes of teaching.
What is the individual lesson in fencing?
Much has already been written about physical conditioning and group instruction in HEMA, so I would like to dedicate this article to basic concepts behind the individual lesson in historical fencing. This kind of teacher-student interaction has a long tradition in modern Olympic fencing where it is considered a primary training tool, especially for fencers above the beginner level – for a great discussion of it supplemented with practical examples of exercises you should definitely consult the work by László Szabó, a great 20th-century Hungarian fencing master.
In the lesson, a fencing coach takes on the role of the opponent and simulates various combat situations in a way that helps the student develop proper technique, tactics, stamina, and psychological resolution. Various objectives may be set for the lesson: from learning new moves through expanding tactical repertoire to maximising efficiency of already mastered techniques or even stress management. All this is achieved by the coach through carefully selected movements, sometimes accompanied with concise verbal instruction or simply vocalisation that prompt the student to correct reactions. Usually the coach tries to keep the lesson fluid, without many breaks for longer explanations or demonstrations, in order to allow as much repetitions by the student as possible and help him improve endurance, concentration, and coordination. And fluidity by no means equals speed: in fact, except for exercises aimed to pressure test already learned techniques, the speed of execution should be adjusted so as to ensure the student has a high rate of success, especially regarding proper choice of fencing actions.
This method is traceable back at least to the 18th century and some references can be found even earlier ¬– let this excerpt from Molière’s Le Burgois gentilhomme (1670) serve as an example:
FENCING MASTER: (After giving a foil to Monsieur Jourdain) Come, sir, the salute. Your body straight. A little inclined upon the left thigh. Your legs not so wide apart. Your feet both in a line. Your wrist opposite your hip. The point of your sword even with your shoulder. The arm not so much extended. The left hand at the level of the eye. The left shoulder more squared. The head up. The expression bold. Advance. The body steady. Beat carte, and thrust. One, two. Recover. Again, with the foot firm. Leap back. When you make a pass, Sir, you must first disengage, and your body must be well turned. One, two. Come, beat tierce and thrust. Advance. Stop there. One, two. Recover. Repeat. Leap back. On guard, Sir, on guard. (The fencing master touches him two or three times with the foil while saying, “On guard.” )
Despite the great changes that occurred in Olympic fencing due to introduction of electric scoring systems, individual fencing lesson remained the main item in any coach’s toolbox. It has ever fared so well thanks to its unique features only partially reproducible in group instruction. Let us have a brief look at them one by one and the qualities they require from a fencing coach.
1. STABLE TECHNIQUE AND CLEAR UNDERSTANDING = EFFICIENT TRAINING
A fencing coach worthy of his or her name should possess clean, efficient, and even more importantly consistent technique regarding all the actions he or she teaches. This way, coaches can act as perfect training partners for fencers – they do not spoil exercises due to flawed and unrealistic technique or because they misunderstood the purpose of the drill, as is often seen in beginners’ paired exercises. In fact, coaches often design drills themselves and thanks to their experience in combat, tactical knowledge, and technical proficiency make sure that they reflect certain important aspects of combat in a realistic way. On top of that, with less time wasted for correcting execution of the exercise, more time can be spent on actual exercising.
Thus, ten repetitions of a technique performed in an individual lesson with a good coach are much more productive than any number with an unexperienced or ill-informed partner.
2. DIRECT TRANSFER = QUICKER LEARNING
During a lesson, the coach uses his or her own body as a training tool. This not only provides the student with a moving and smart living dummy that can even strike back from time to time, but also allows for mimetic learning. Due to prolonged focus on their coach’s movement, students start to imitate it – mostly unconsciously they assimilate coach’s kinaesthetic patterns into their own bodies, adapt his or her rhythm, and even attune emotionally. This quickens the learning process significantly, because much of it happens non-verbally and instinctively.
Therefore, fencing coaches should pay close attention to their movement and emotional expression during lessons and make sure that, even if modified for teaching purposes, their technique retains the crucial characteristics of actual combat manoeuvres. They would also find it very helpful to learn techniques for rhythm and emotions management.
3. UNDIVIDED ATTENTION = TAILORED INSTRUCTION
As indicated by the name, individual lessons allow students to receive their coaches’ undivided attention. This means that they can ask questions, get drills devised to fit their skill set or physical condition, be corrected more efficiently in case of errors, and if needed poke their comfort zone under expert supervision. This ‘tailored suit’ experience becomes more pronounced with longer periods of cooperation with a given coach when both parties can get to know each other better. In addition, after they establish a common language in the course of many individual lessons, it will be much easier for a student to communicate with his or her coach even in the midst of fierce and demanding tournament (or a judicial duel for that matter!).
In conclusion, individual lessons create a bond between the teacher and the student. It helps the teacher provide the student with personalised exercises and the student to understand the teacher quickly and efficiently. Without such bond communication is often hindered, especially under pressure – it is not uncommon during competitions to see coaches shouting instructions at their fighters in the ring that are neither clear nor actually applied (perhaps this is most pronounced in children competitions).
4. HIGH SUCCESS RATE = CONFIDENCE BOOST
Good fencing coaches, while ensuring necessary realism, modify their movements during lessons so as to ensure their students achieve a high percentage of successful executions. Smart coaches will also remember to avoid finishing a difficult drill unless the last execution was correct. This way they help their student remember the good side of their performance as well as keep positive attitude and carry on despite the difficulties.
Thus, they help the student build up his or her confidence and finish each lesson with a sense of accomplishment. This equals more motivation for training, more satisfaction from fencing, better relaxation (= reflexes and adaptability!), longer focus, greater creativity, and gute mute (‘good mood’) so valued even by the old ones.
You do not have to take just my word for this. Below you can watch a number of Polish HEMA coaches and practitioners of various levels sharing their thoughts on this topic. For a few years already, individual fencing lessons have garnered more and more popularity in HEMA circles in Poland. Many top instructors received training in Olympic fencing methodology and initiated its creative adaptation to our needs. Currently, this long-term process is starting to pay off. Not only those young fencers that take lessons regularly progress very quickly, but maybe even more importantly veterans trained this way steadily improve their performance of historical techniques in competitive contexts. Actually, many “plays” or sequences described in our sources fit perfectly to the framework of the individual lesson, especially when approached holistically from the perspective of their respective fighting systems – see the example at the bottom.
Taking all this into consideration, I heartily recommend you to give this method a try for some time. With patience and, admittedly, quite a lot of mental and physical effort on your part it will help you become an outstanding coach and your students – well-rounded and happy fencers.
As a simple example consider the two approaches at teaching Zornhaw:
1) Classical drill based on the Zettel performed either student-student or student-teacher:
Fencers stand in Vom Tag. Fencer A strikes and Oberhaw with a passing step at Fencer B. In response, B strikes Zornhaw. + you may add the follow-ups to choose from after Zornhaw was deflected
Easy to describe to a group.
Success rate and overall efficiency of the exercise for B depends heavily on the proficiency of A in giving proper conditions.
Little tactical instruction involved – Students still do not know why A decided to throw this Oberhaw and how to persuade their opponents in sparring to do so.
It is easy to fall into the ‘autopilot mode’ and perform the drill thoughtlessly.
2) Drill for individual lesson based on the Zettel and the broader context (applicable to group instruction to some extent):
Coach assumes some offensive stance (Vom Tag with beginners), Fencer stands in Vom Tag. Distance is too long for a direct strike with a passing step. Fencer makes a step forward without changing the stance to get in the distance for a strike and pauses for a moment to see Coach’s reaction. If Coach remains still or changes guard without threatening or closing the opening for Oberhaw, Fencer strikes. If Coach starts his own Oberhaw, Fencer defends with Zornhaw.
This may be performed in place or from free movement initiated either by Coach or Fencer. + you may add the follow-ups to choose from after Zornhaw was deflected
Coach gives correct conditions; crucial tactical instruction is involved.
Fencer learns to use Zornhaw as a defensive move while preparing his own attack consisting of a very similar movement and to use pressure on the opponent to provoke the Oberhaw to be countered with Zornhaw.
Coach ensures the student does not enter the ‘autopilot mode’ but remains cautious.
Directly applicable to sparring.
A bit more complicated to explain (especially to a new group) and perform (needs decent distance management and timing – again, not a problem for a fencing coach).