Giacomo diGrasse

His true Art of Defense

 

A Video-Enhanced Rapier Combat Tutorial

Plainly teaching by infallible demonstrations, apt figures, and perfect rules the manner and form how a man without other teacher or master may safely handle all sorts of weapons, offensive and defensive; with a treatise of deceit and falsings,offering a way by private industry to obtain strength, judgement and acuity.

 

First written in Italian by the fore-said author, 1570
Englished by I.G., Gentleman, 1594
Americanized, abridged and interpreted by Rick Orli, 1994

© Richard J. Orli, 1994, 2000     credits

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Slow modem?  Click me turtle.wmf (6870 bytes) for the no-video/no-graphics version

Also, you must have MicroSoft Explorer 3.5 or higher to view the video clips (Sorry Sorry Sorry....)

WARNING:  Swordplay can be dangerous if improperly practiced.  Routines should be practiced only under the qualified supervision of a fencing instructor or by an American Society of Fight Directors instructor.  The videos show staged (carefully choreographed) and well-practiced moves, done by experts.  Any sort of 'free' fencing or play demands the use of modern sport fencing equipment, including facemasks and flexible/lightweight swords (such as foils or epees). 

Contents  

Rick's Basics Review

The First Part - The Basics

I. Introduction 

II. The Sword

III. Of Footwork

IV. Of Wards

V. The Strike

VI. Defending

VII. Application of Method

The Second Part  Attack and Defense
VIII. One Rapier

IX.  Dagger

X.  Cloak

XI. Buckler

XII. Square Target

XIII. Round Target 

XIV. Case of Swords

XV. Two-handed Sword

XVI. Staff Weapons

XI.  Pike

 

The Third Part
Deceits and Falseing
of Blows and Thrusts

 

The Forth Part
How a Man by Private Practice may Obtain
Strength of Body Thereby

 

Index

Rapier Technique Demo (4MB .avi)

 

WARNING! THIS IS NOT INTENDED AS SWORDPLAY INSTRUCTION FOR BEGINNERS.

Foreword

In 1594 the writings of an Italian Fencing Master, Giacomo diGrasse, were "Englished" from the original Italian for the benefit of his London students. I highly recommend the 1594 version, which uses the language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, and is very readable. Regrettably, it has been my experience that most students are daunted by certain typographical conventions and unfamiliar terms, and so satisfy themselves with only a quick glance. This modern interpretation was prepared originally for my students, and will serve readers with a historical interest in period fencing technique who prefer a more streamlined and accessible version of this classic work.

To keep the text concise, my working assumption is that the reader is familiar with modern fencing jargon, which is used as applicable. Brief explanations are included in the gloss. In addition, the gloss includes comments on diGrasse's intent or observations from the experience of modern fencing or martial arts.  In the second edition, I supplemented this material with video clips of selected rapier techniques.

The original translation was likely performed by Jerenimo, a student and successor to Rocco Bonetti, and associate of Vincentio Saviolio. Saviolio would, within a few years, author his own manual on the Art of Defense.

DiGrasse promises to teach us to "safely handle" weapons in the title. What does he mean, given that the chance of suffering a wound or death against an equal opponent is 50% at best? Clearly safety is a relative concept based on small steps taken to bias the odds. He emphasizes one central tenant: the objective is not to strike and be struck, but to strike and remain without danger.

Safety means:

1) Being more skilled, trained, in better physical condition than your opponent.

2) Doing nothing that may yield a double kill. (If the chance of a double kill is 10%, you have only a 45% chance of surviving against an equal opponent.)

3) Having a readiness to win - to kill; confident aggression.

DiGrasse and his peers advocated a style of fencing that emphasized the thrust with light-weight point weapons and high speed movement. This style rendered obsolete the earlier form of heavy backsword play which relied on the cut.

It is interesting to note that Saviolo writing in English freely uses Italian terminology such as imbrocatta, squalanbrato, etc., while di Grasse's translator was careful to use only common English terms. George Silver, a contemporary champion of the good old fashioned English way of things, mocks both the Italian words and the very concept of rapier play. However, even he uses some Italian jargon by the time of his second work, and certainly the use of Italian was common and fashionable by 1600. Shakespeare uses fencing terms such as "stocatta" in Romeo and Juliet and other plays. Undoubtedly this was due to some extent to the credit of Saviolio himself, a popular teacher of defense for the cream of English society.

This new fashion was in turn superseded by a fundamental change in fencing technology and fashion around 1660. "Small sword" techniques, dominated by the French School, replaced Rapier techniques, which had been dominated by Italian masters such as diGrasse and Saviolio. One consequence is that modern fencing jargon is based largely on 1660 French language. Italian terminology of one generation earlier is, as is rapier play itself, now archaic and disused outside the realm of theater and reenactment.

Rick Orli


As a translator/interpreter I took many liberties with translator IG's words to be true to spirit. Please quote IG when you wish to quote DiGrasse. The 1694 manuscript is available from Syke's Sutlering (Falconwood Press edition). 

A partial online version of IG's 1694 diGrasse transcribed by Steve Hick is at: http://www.cs.unc.edu/~hudson/digrassi/

The original Italian manuscript in facsimile is available from William Wilson at :  http://www.cs.unc.edu/~hudson/digrassi/

 


A note to the reader about some basics

THIS WEB SITE IS NOT INTENDED AS SWORDPLAY INSTRUCTION FOR NOVICES, BUT THE FOLLOWING WORDS ARE ADDRESSED TO YOU, THE NOVICE.

The subject of this document is not theatrical fencing, although that is the closest description of what I do most often. Theatrical 'combat' is a dance, where you and your partner adhere to a strict plan and know the rhythm by heart. In contrast, non-theatrical real Combat means you keep your plans a strict secret from your enemy, and if you detect a rhythm in her moves, you use that knowledge to, figuratively speaking, stomp hard with the big boot. In theatrical fencing, maintaining eye contact to pick up subtle cues, designing phrases to consist of cue-action-reaction, maintaining a measure 'out of distance', mis-directed blows, etc. all play a part in making for an effective and safe presentation. These issues are not discussed here.

Nor is the subject competitive sport fencing or using pseudo-rapiers. As I discuss below, the modern sport of epee is competitive fencing using pseudo-smallswords, which started out to be a true dueling simulation but grew to be false to the spirit of combat or dueling (even while being a lot of fun and good sport). Any well-intentioned effort to do the same with pseudo-rapiers is doomed to the same end for the same reasons.

The subject here is the methods, technique and mindset for training for combat or dueling, as diGrasse intended, (or as best as we can research and as near as we can guess). This is a historical study exercise, and from this base you can go where you will.

In discussion I assume knowledge of fencing. Here is a test for you. Do you know the difference among a prise de fer (beat parry with the foible/weak/tip part of blade), a 'regular parry' (with the forte/strong part of blade) and a glasse or bind (exclusion made with constant blade contact, such as in a time thrust)? And I don't mean theoretical... I mean, viscerally do you know the timing and what it feels like to do each of these correctly, because you have done each many times in drill? If not, then you do not have the intermediate level (2nd year) of training necessary to know what I am talking about in this tutorial, nor do you have the background necessary to study on your own.

By the way, I'm not prejudiced solely in favor of modern western fencing. If you had studied Kendo or Philippine stick fighting for a good solid year or two, I bet you would know exactly what I was talking about above even if you had never heard of a 'prise de fer' (you can always look it up...) and you would be ready also.

Nor can I say in words the correct 'feel' for executing a parry - how to make it snappy yet firm, how not to either over or under parry, or how to make a thrust fast yet smooth. These are things learned only by hands-on practice, with the assistance of an instructor. DiGrasse believed that a man might be self-taught... that may have been true then because it would have been possible to observe, in daily life, good swordsmen in practice and bouting, and chances were your group of sparring buddies would have included someone who had had basic training. Today, that is simply not the case. The visual image of rapier play you may be straining under might have come from the 'bish-bash-bam' Errol Flyn movies, or from the comic-fantastical combat in the Highlander films, or even Star Wars. Please believe me when I say that that type of 'movie knowledge' is worse than total ignorance (although check out Kurasawa's 'Roshamon' for a thoughtful film commentary on fantasy versus 'real' dueling).

Anyway, my point is, if you are interested, you ought to learn how to fence and get a LOT of practice fencing through the handiest means available. Most likely that means taking modern sport fencing lessons. Many large urban areas support some type of rapier group, but these often meet irregularly. A serious student should fence twice per week, and preferably much more - that is usually possible only with modern sport fencing.

I am not even going to argue that it's all transferable knowledge. As a matter of fact anyone interested in becoming a first rate sport fencer should not learn rapier. Basic things like the footwork and even the timing is all different. It can even hurt a bit if your objective is Rapier only... If I am in a competitive situation where I want to hit my opponent, I turn into a competitive modern fencer with a rapier in my hand - I can't help myself, I was too well trained for too many years, er, decades. Also, to be frank, some of the rapier moves just don't seem that great.... I've been up against the US national champion and Olympic medallists, and if I imagine sticking a rapier into their hands, can I see getting away with a 'traverse' against them? NO WAY!  At the core of it all, is how to move with a sword in hand - and to learn that you have to spend a lot of time moving with a sword in your hand.

This material should not be considered as a 'how to' manual for beginners, but as a resource for experienced fencers who want to find out a bit about the rapier and 17th C. fencing technique.

Of the modern fencing weapons, Foil is best to learn for similarity to real combat fencing. Why? Because foil was invented as training weapon for dueling with the small sword, around 1670-1680. People nowadays dismiss it and dis it, because it is lightweight, but mostly because of all the 'rules'. They say, real fightn' ain't got no rules.

True it is lightweight, but it is only a tad lighter than the small-sword it is trying to simulate. But, I'm here to tell you that there are only two rules in foil, and they are not made up BS just to crimp your style, but real good advice designed to save your hide in a duel:

Rule 1) Don't waste time trying to hit where you can't kill (e.g., chest yes, ankle no).

Rule 2) Never do anything that will result in your own death. (e.g. suicide is bad)

The foil 'rules' were devised by 17th Century fencing experts (who had fought in and survived real duels) as a means to teach their sons, cousins, and friends how to conduct themselves in a duel so that they might win. So for example, the rule about avoiding death is expanded to say something like... 'if your opponent is stabbing at your heart with a sharp thing, better run, duck, or block before you even think about doing anything else'. The foil fencing rule book had to say that in several pages, and used several dozen pages to explain exactly what constitutes an attack, a duck, and so on. Rules that codify what is and is not 'good' are necessary when people are playing with safety gear, since without the negative reinforcement of dying as a consequence of error, practice easily degenerates into simultaneous whacking nonsense with people arguing about who got who first or who hit harder. Since the deadly use of the rapier is not as common today as it was in 1570 in the province of Grasse, a student's casual observations and guesses cannot be trusted to provide a 'reality check'.

Once people found that this swordplay stuff was a lot of fun to do, it became a sport and the rule book quadrupled in size again to include sportsmanship and scorekeeping guidance. As dueling became irrelevant, the sport aspect of fencing became dominant, and it took on a life of it's own, and became less duel-like and more sport-like. This was an inevitable consequence of the situation, and I refuse to think of it as either good or bad. Still, foil even as a sport adhered to the two deeply true-to-reality rules above.

Epee was never a training weapon for the duel, but was a sport from the get-go. It was no doubt a well-intentioned effort to simulate the conditions of a duel more realistically than foil, by eliminating "right of way" rules and allowing the whole body to be a target. However, one of the original mechanisms designed to force realism... single hit elimination, and simultaneous hit double elimination, was quickly tossed aside to allow prominence to the sporting aspect. From the duel simulation perspective the result was total disaster, teaching mastery of weird suicidal attitudes and dangerous moves. Epeeists specialize in calculations such as: this move results in a simultaneous hit 50% of the time, 23% I win a clean hit, 12% my opponent gets a clean hit on me, 15% no hit.... I should do it all the time. (Rephrased: A move that would result in my death 62% of the time is great!) This bogus calculation also affects foil multi-point bouts, but at least each individual phrase in a bout is tested against a style template to maintain some degree of fidelity to sound dueling technique, if not necessarily attitude.

A NOTE ON LEARNING

I am often asked.... How old should one be to learn? Best is about age 8, second best 7 or 9, third best age 10... you get my drift. That is, modern fencing. I would not encourage learning rapier until the late teen years.  If you are a kid, or are responsible for a kid, you should know that any serious fencing school that wants to produce champions LOVES to give lessons to kids.

 

Further Reading:

Joseph Swetnam, by William Wilson 

Jakob Sutor, Künstliches Fechtbuch , by Peter Valentine

Art of the Sword , by Rick Orli

Targeteer, by Rick Orli

William Hope, The Complete Fencing Master, by Rick Orli

Steve Clement's "Historical Armed Combat Association" has a great collection of stuff and pointers to other internet sources.

 


Many thanks to:

Peter Valentine - Provided scanned illustrations of Jakob Suter. All Suter images are copyright Peter Valentine. 

Robert Gonia - Participated in and helped develop the many Rapier demonstrations.

Fred Schlop - Target and Pike demonstration.

Brian - Partisan and Muskette Butte demonstration.

William Wilson, - Provided scanned illustrations from the original Italian diGrasse.  All Italian edition diGrasse images are copyright William Wilson.


Basics Review: Movement, Measure, the Thrust, and the Cut.

Rapier Technique Demo

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