An Introduction to DiGrassi's Footwork
by ibn Jelal
Originally published in Punta Dritta, March AS XXXV (2001)
One thing that initially confuses new fencers is the greater variety of footwork mentioned within period manuals. The most commonly used manual would probably be that by Giacomo DiGrassi, whose manual was translated into English in 1594. I've found that the key to understanding DiGrassi is to understand his footwork. Any experienced fencer will tell you that it starts with the footwork.
The Paces referenced by DiGrassi
DiGrassi refers to 3 main types of footwork: The Straight Pace, The Crooked or Slope Pace and The Compass Pace. Furthermore, paces can be either a full pace or a half pace. These paces are the mainstays of DiGrassi's footwork, however, he does make the occasional reference to a right pace, which is also known as a Traverse.
Figure 1 is used by DiGrassi to show his footwork:
Figure 1 - Digrassi's footwork diagram
DiGrassi's first words on paces outlines the length of a pace:
And because I cannot lay down a certain measure of motion, considering the difference between man and man, some being of great and some of little stature: for to some it is commodious to make his pace the length of an arm, and to other some half the length or more. Therefore I advertise every man in all his wards to frame a reasonable pace, in such sort that if he would step forward to strike, he lengthen or increase one foot, and if he would defend himself, he withdraw as much, without peril of falling.
This is an important measure to remember, as it allows us to define relative pace lengths depending on the size of the fencer. This principle is also used in modern fencing texts. An arm's length is generally the same as 2 foot's lengths. This agrees with the length of pace taught in modern fencing, which adds proof to the old adage that "there is nothing new in fencing". However, unlike modern fencing, the sequence in which the feet move is different. Which brings us to ...
The Full Pace
The full pace according to DiGrassi is:
By whole pace is understood, when the foot is carried from behind forwards, keeping steadfast the forefoot. And this pace is sometimes made straight, sometimes crooked.
This is a step with the back foot, bringing it up in front of the leading foot. In practice, you can remain in this new stance by pivoting on the ball of the now trailing foot, however I find that most people normally make a second full pace to complete the step, which is analogous to a modern crossover step. The full pace is used for covering ground quickly, either forwards or backwards. As we can see, very different to the modern advance or retreat . This pace is shown in figure 2.
Figure 2 - The Full Pace
The Half Pace
The half pace according to DiGrassi is:
Now the middle of these back and fore paces, I will term the half pace: and that is, when the hind foot being brought near the forefoot, does even there rest: or when from thence the same foot goes forwards. And likewise when the forefoot is gathered into the hind foot, and there does rest, and then retires itself from hence backwards. These half paces are much used, both straight and crooked, forwards and backwards, straight and crooked.
The half pace, like the full pace starts with the back foot when advancing. Tactically, this step is used for closing distance subtly. Done smoothly, it appears that you have only settled your feet. The step is made by bringing the back foot to just behind the front foot, and then correcting the feet separation with the front foot. This pace is shown in figure 3.
Figure 3 - DiGrassi's Half Pace
The Slope Pace
So far we've looked at the linear paces used for advancing and retreating. DiGrassi's footwork also includes angular and circular footwork. The slope pace is angular footwork, which allows for voiding actions and angular attacks. DiGrassi's description of the slope pace is:
By crooked or slope pace is understood, when the hind foot is brought also forwards, but yet a thwart or crossing: and as it goes forwards, it carries the body with it, out of the straight line, where the blow is given.
The slope pace is most effective when done as a half pace, as it will void the body further off line, and is faster in execution. Starting from the normal stance, the rear foot is lifted and moved at a 45° angle, and placed about a foot's distance to the side of the leading foot. This will give the appearance of a correct stance but now facing to the left, with the rear foot becoming the leading foot. (In all the footwork descriptions, I have assumed a right-handed person using single sword. DiGrassi himself specifies hand and foot should be in agreement, and the sword should be held before, not behind, and this is also clearly shown in his ward diagrams.) The slope pace is then usually completed by taking a forward step with the original leading foot, ensuring a return to the correct stance. Note that the new stance may be at a different angle than originally, since you should always face your opponent. This is achieved through small pivots on the balls of the feet, but is not shown in the figure. The slope pace is shown in figure 4.
Figure 4 - DiGrassi's Slope Pace
The Compass Pace
The compass pace is a circular pace, and like the slope pace is used for voiding actions and angular attacks. DiGrassi describes the compass pace as follows:
Circular paces, are not otherwise used than in half paces, and they are made thus: When one has framed his pace, he must fetch a compass with his hind foot or fore foot, on the right or left side: so that circular paces are made either when the hind foot standing fast behind, does afterwards move itself on the right or left side, or when the forefoot being settled before does move likewise on the right or left side: with all these sort of paces a man may move every way both forwards and backwards.
Generally, this is step is started by bringing the rear foot behind the leading foot to about a stance's width and then pivoting the front foot through the ball of the foot, resulting in a stance that now faces to the left. The step is then completed with the front foot making the compass to the side of the rear foot, and pivoting the rear foot through the ball of the foot. Interestingly, whilst the modern French school no longer teaches any angular footwork, the Italian school still teaches a semi-compass pace as the Inquartata.  The compass pace is shown in figure 5.
Figure 5 - Digrassi's Compass Pace
 Both the modern Italian and French schools of fencing use the same footwork for advancing and retreating. Compare the descriptions provided by Crosnier for the French School, and Gaugler for the Italian school.
 See Gaugler for further information
Giacomo DiGrassi, " His True Art of Defense", 1594. Digrassi's original manual was published in Italian in Venice, 1570, and was translated into English in 1594 by I. G. gentleman. A scanned pdf version of the Italian manual is available at http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~wew/fencing.html and the English version can be found online at: http://www.musketeer.org/manuals/diGrassi/contents.htm or http://www.cs.unc.edu/~hudson/digrassi/ (partial copy but includes the diagrams) or http://www.aemma.org/onlineResources/diGrassi/digrassiHome. htm (full version with diagrams) The English version is also available in the highly recommended book (since it also contains Saviolo and Silver): Jackson, James Louis, "Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals", Delmar, N.Y., Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1972, ISBN 0820111074.
Roger Crosnier, "Fencing With The Foil", Faber and Faber, London, 1951 Recommended text for those interested in Classical French school. Provides useful information on conducting group classes and drills etc.
William M. Gaugler, "The Science of Fencing", Laureate Press, USA, 1997, ISBN 1884528058 Recommended text for those interested in Classical Italian School. Provides useful information for conducting individual lessons, and fencing tactics.