Di Grassi as a foundation for SCA rapier
An edited text of a presentation by Provost Owain Cantor ap Hughe to the Combined Guilds Day held in Politarchopolis on 16-17 September 2006.
This discussion is in part a result of the exhortation by several Guildmasters that I start working towards the playing of a Master's Prize, an invitation that I have taken up with a sense of challenge and great trepidation. Further study of Giacomo di Grassi's manual as a first step towards that end was an obvious and natural choice. My first lessons in fencing came from that manual, under the instruction of Guildmaster Francois Henri Guyon. And, while my skills have evolved with practice and further teaching, di Grassi remains the foundation of my rapier style.
Using di Grassi as a foundation for period rapier combat is my subject; specifically, its practical application in introducing beginners to fencing in the SCA as played under the standard rapier combat rules. My views on this subject are drawn from my own experience as a fencing student under various teachers, my reading of di Grassi's work and the SCA rapier rules, and my more recent experience as a teacher of new fencers. Should any fault be found with the interpretation of di Grassi or its application, then such should rest with me, not with my teachers.
Principles of di Grassi
Di Grassi's manual forms part of a body of work that came out of Italy in the mid to late 16th century, attaching scientific principles to the practice of swordplay. The work of the Italian masters through this period also documents the evolution of fencing from a predominantly cutting style to the point-oriented styles of the 17th century onwards. Di Grassi lays out five principles for his True Arte of Defence:
- The straight line is the shortest.
- He that is nearest hits soonest.
- A circle bears more force in its extremity than in the centre.
- A man may more easily withstand a small force than a great one.
- Every motion is accomplished in time.
His principles are based upon his discussion of the different parts of the sword, coupled with the different parts of the arm. This has three elements:
- The relative strengths of each part;
- The speed at which different parts move; and
- The relationship between the movement of the arm and the movement of the sword.
Di Grassi's principles cover fundamental aspects of period fencing: the importance of distance from your opponent; the use of the weaker (but faster) parts of your sword to attack and the slower (but stronger) parts to parry; and the coordination of parry, riposte and footwork to accomplish your defence and attack in time. His principles also set out a compelling argument for the use of the thrust over the cut.
To make a cut, a sword must travel in a circle; therefore, if your opponent makes a cut, and you make a straight-line thrust, your attack will land first. Taking this further, if your point is closer to your opponent than their edge to you, a straight thrust will be quick enough to incapacitate your opponent, without needing to parry the cut. Di Grassi style is very much about using the point, and the thrust is proposed as his primary attack in all forms. But he is not above using the cut, when circumstances provide the advantage. It is possible to make a cut more quickly, by using the wrist, but because the wrist is at the centre of that circle of motion, it lacks force for a solid attack. But if your edge is closer to your opponent than their point (for example, after an unsuccessful or feinted thrust), then a cut can be landed more quickly, and with sufficient strength, by virtue of being able to use your arm to draw the edge.
Benefits of di Grassi as a foundation for new SCA fencers
There are strong similarities between di Grassi and SCA standard rapier. SCA standard combat allows only two means of landing a blow: a good thrust; and a draw cut. The practical application of this requirement means that the thrust is the primary or, if you prefer, most-used, attack in SCA-regimented bouts. As such, teaching di Grassi's approach of using the thrust in the first instance, with the cut as a follow-up, is a straightforward way of teaching students how to attack according to the SCA rules.
In my re-reading of di Grassi's writings, I have also concluded that his approach also provides a basis to teach a student to attack safely, when it comes to calibration of the thrust. Under the SCA combat rules, a 'good' thrust is considered to be the lightest touch that the combatant can feel. In actual combat, this may not be the case and calibration continues to be a matter for debate, but it should be accepted that, for the purposes of SCA rapier, the aim in training students is not to teach them to run an opponent through, but how to land a firm, but not excessive, touch on their opponent. Di Grassi describes the thrust as the result of two opposing circular motions; for example, from the Low Ward, the point of the sword moves in an arc downwards as the hand and arm moves in an arc upwards, creating a straight line. I consider that this explanation of the movement of the blade can help instil in students the concept that a 'thrust' is actually the motion of reaching out to touch their opponent with an extension of their arm. Combined with training and practice in footwork, balance and distance, this approach may help students refine their thrusting technique and reduce the risk of the 'stabbing' motion that can be seen in less experienced fencers. This will not prevent hard shots from happening - the fencer's technique is only one factor in a sequence that also includes speed, adrenalin and the movement of your opponent - but it will reduce the risk.
My third preference for teaching di Grassi comes down to a very practical issue. Di Grassi is simple; his manual distils a multitude of guards (for example in Marozzo) down to three: the High, Broad and Low Wards. Based on experience, the Low Ward is the natural position a new fencer will take the very first time they pick up a sword. And when it comes to defence, di Grassi is simpler still; his recommended defences against attacks from all wards all start from the Low Ward. His accompanying footwork is also straightforward. Di Grassi's emphasis is on balance and deliberation, making paces, or half paces, in attack or defence that are spaced according to the stature of the combatant. Di Grassi does not advocate the lunge - at most, the 'great pace' is a demi-lunge - and in my own experience, his footwork is ideal for a larger person who may be less fit and more aware of stresses on joints.
Teaching Di Grassi
To train a di Grassi fencer, I, like my own instructors, tend to start from the ground up. The first lessons for new students start with footwork, teaching them how to be balanced and their deliberate in their movements when they advance, withdraw or move around their opponent. It's worth discussing here the question of how soon to introduce students to slope paces, My view is that forwards and backwards are the logical starting point for footwork, but that as soon as students are comfortable with the stance and basic movements, you should incorporate slope and compass steps into their training regime, particularly once they start bladework.
The bladework itself begins with instruction on establishing and maintaining distance, the stance for di Grassi's wards, their applications and their various pros and cons. Something I have found useful recently in developing these skills is an application of a principle taught to me from Viggiani, emphasising the movements of the blade as transitions from one guard to another. Di Grassi talks about moving the blade from one of his wards to end in another (frequently the Low ward), but I have found Viggiani's description a valuable concept in coming to understand how the wards fit together.
From the fundamental lessons in foot and bladework, we move on to putting them together, developing parries and ripostes and working on movements within time. At this point we start looking at how to apply the knowledge acquired to their opponents, for such elements as estimating their opponent's effective distance, considering possible attacks from their chosen guard and looking for ways around their defence. This is also the stage where I find benefit in working on slope steps, where students can be shown the advantages of stepping off-line to make an angled attack. From here on, it is a case of sharing ideas on attack and defence and building a repertoire of moves, branching out as skills develop into areas such as feints, binds and off-hand forms.
Some of these are elements not entertained, or seriously entertained, in the di Grassi approach. For example, di Grassi is greatly dismissive of feints, or falsing as he calls it, describing it as something more suited to practice, or 'sport', than to the serious business of staying alive in a fight. The difference between di Grassi's approach to fencing, and the skills taught in the SCA, leads me to finish with some philosophical discussion.
Finally, some philosophy...
In preparing for this discussion, I have been re-reading Egerton Castle's book on Schools and Masters of Fencing. 120 years after it was first published, it remains an excellent discussion of the evolution of modern fencing. Of course, in reading Castle, it helps if you try to keep to one side his patronising comments about the early fencing masters and the conceited view that by the late 19th century fencing had achieved its perfect state. To take Castle's perspective, swordsmen before the 16th century were essentially brawling thugs with little real skill who relied on having heavier armour and a stronger sword arm than their opponents to carry them through a battle. Even the fencing masters of the Renaissance were rated as men who taught their own collection of 'tricks' while gradually carrying fencing along to a more scientific view. There are some respected and deadly fighters in the SCA today who would surely take issue with this view, and their continuing efforts to develop their skills are in fact taking them back beyond Egerton Castle's starting point, as earlier teachers and manuals help them to better understand how it all works. But rather than be as patronising, and say that we in the SCA today know more than Castle did, I think it's fairer to say that we have a greater store of knowledge to draw on, with unimagined access to fencing and combat manuals going back centuries.
Consider that a fencing student in the 16th century learned "the true art" from his teacher, including trade secrets that may have come with an injunction not to reveal them to others. At some stage, they might have been fortunate enough to receive instruction from other teachers, or had access to published fencing works. Over time, those who became masters would have refined their thinking into their own style, and passed this on as the "true art". By comparison, to learn 16th century fencing in the SCA, you can sit at a desk and within minutes have access to manuals from a handful of masters, from different countries, espousing different approaches, in the original, in translation or, best of all, interpreted by another fencer who has put in the effort to work out what the master meant in modern terms. As a result, the SCA fencer can develop an armoury of fencing technique that crosses the styles of various masters; indeed, we are encouraged to do so in the Guild of Defence, where Prizes at the senior levels are judged in part upon a candidate's ability to play in more than one style.
Our approach to fencing, and the great knowledge we have at our disposal, does present challenges. As we adopt, and adapt, the old masters' styles to our own needs students have to be conscious of not learning so much that our fencing style truly does become nothing more than a collection of 'tricks' picked up here and there. A system can be enhanced, or it can work in concert with another system, but it must remain a coherent system.
Masters and teachers, on the other hand, must remain aware of the needs of their students. It is possible, and practical, to become a competent and effective fencer employing the teachings of a single master. Employing the teachings of more than one master can certainly enhance fencing ability, but we risk overloading students if we draw on the range of resources at our command and seek to push them too far, too soon.
Castle, Egerton, Schools and Masters of Fencing, Dover Publications, 2003
Hutton, Alfred, Old Sword Play, Dover Publications, 2002
There are many excellent Internet sites that cover di Grassi's work, notably:
www.aemma.org/onlineResources/diGrassi/digrassiHome.htm (you must be a member to use this site)