Beyond masters—the underlying philosophies of sword fighting

What do Spanish rapier and German longsword have in common? What’s the difference between Swetnam and Silver or Mair and Meyer? Too often we get caught up learning a particular system or following a particular master that when we compare them to another, we just think about how their techniques are different. I think it’s only when we look beyond individual techniques and consider what made those masters tick that we can fully understand the art of sword fighting. Only then can we understand why people can use very different weapons in such a similar way, and almost identical weapons completely differently.

The thing I found most striking when studying Fiore’s Fior di Battaglia was just how brutal it was. He tells you the best time to kick someone in the balls, break their arm or knock their teeth out with your pommel, for a start. Not all of his techniques can be done with the weapon on either sides of your body but that doesn’t matter to him. When you hold a longsword, one hand is above the other which means, like it or not, some techniques can be done better from one side. He appreciates, in a really profound way, the strengths and weaknesses not only of individual techniques or guards, but the weapons themselves. If I had to summarise Fiore’s philosophy in a word it would be pragmatism. He does what is the most efficient given the situation. Contrast that to other systems, such as German longsword, which value the option of doing things from different sides, and you realise that although Fiore sounds close-minded, he is actually efficient, pragmatic and brutal. We see traces of a similar mindset in Silver when he talks about giving downwards blows and the value of certain guards. Silver, like Fiore, wasn’t unaware of the options out there; they just both decided to focus on what worked the best for them.

If the underlying German philosophy wasn’t pragmatism then what was it? If you compare i.33 sword and buckler to Liechtenauer’s longsword lineage, you’ll realise the underling German philosophy. It is to control the centre, primarily through the bind. Practitioners of Fiore occasionally scoff at practitioners of Liechtenauer, who seem to start every bout with opposing zornhaus and go from there. But there is deep wisdom in it. The underlying thinking goes, the centre is the closest point to the opponent so if you control the centre you have the best chance of hitting them and not getting hit yourself. This is where German longsword and sword and buckler are fundamentally similar to Spanish rapier. Both focus on controlling the central, most direct line as a means of striking safely. And both use the bind to do it. German longsword is famous for the complexity of its bind mechanics and Spanish rapier would be as well if more people knew about it. This isn’t a coincidence. The bind is the natural outcome of two people competing for the central line and so a complex set of bind techniques and counters was a natural evolution of the underlying philosophy. This is why two seemingly completely different weapons can actually be used in fundamentally the same way; because their practitioners have the same underlying philosophy.

What’s the difference between Spanish and Italian rapiers then? I’d say there are two key philosophies that each has which is different to the other. Firstly, in contrast to the Spanish and German control the centre through the bind, Italian rapier is even more ambitious in that it seeks to control the mind of the opponent. Don’t get me wrong. Many Italian rapier techniques involve a form of bind through, for example, a thrust in opposition, i.e. thrusting while displacing their sword as well. But that’s not all they do. When you consider the disengage and lunge or, most obviously, the famous Capo Ferro lunge, you start to appreciate that the bind is but one tool they use to control the mind of their opponent, not the main tool to control the centre. The second set of opposing philosophies is shown through their approach to footwork. Italian footwork is very linear, i.e. straight towards or back from the opponent, while Spanish footwork circles around. There is a fundamental philosophical difference between the two but to fully appreciate it we need to consider other masters as well.

Silver and Swetnam help complete the puzzle of the difference between Spanish and Italian footwork. Italian footwork is premised on efficiency. It is more efficient to move directly forward or back from your opponent. So, for the descendants of Fiore, it makes sense that they do that. However, Spanish footwork is inherently radical and flips efficiency on its head. By circling around an opponent, you actually change the central line between you and force your opponent to change their position as well. By circling, you negate the efficiency of your opponent’s linear approach. Silver advocates the same practice of circling for the same reason: it thwarts the opponent’s linear plans. And this is why it’s so radical. Circling footwork counters both someone fighting to control the central line as it was, and someone trying to outthink you in a linear direction. It stems from an underlying, shall we say “meta”, philosophy which is itself aware of the opponent’s philosophy and uses it against them.

I mentioned Swetnam though, so where does he come in? If you’re thinking that the radical, meta-philosophy of using an opponent’s philosophy against them was the final evolution then think again. Swetnam noted something both painfully obvious and incredibly profound: you can’t know how someone else will fight. You don’t know if someone is going to feint or strike or step or lunge or pass. They might try and control the centre, but what if they don’t? They might move towards you one second then step off to the side the next. They might not care about getting hit and just rush you and swing wildly where you’re not expecting them to strike. Every other philosophy either assumes that the opponent will fight like them, or can be expected to fight in a certain way or will at least try to not get hit. Swetnam’s humbleness in acknowledging how little we can really know leads him to the wisest philosophy of all: do whatever you can to be as safe as you can and only truly strike when you’re certain of your opportunity. This, in practice, means stay just out of their measure, in a strong guard and if they won’t strike at you, feint at them. Many people deride feints or consider them dangerous but if done out of measure they’re perfectly safe. Others consider nothing out of measure worth reacting to but as Swetnam points out, it’s actually very hard to tell if someone is feinting or not. His method makes use of underlying principles such as measure while not relying on any one technique or assumption about the opponent. This is why I personally find it the most useful philosophy in all of HEMA. Indeed, I was already essentially fighting with Swetnam’s philosophy before I even knew he existed. But once I read him, I realised that he articulated what I had come to know and that this little-known master was perhaps the wisest of them all.

(Photo by Carlos Cadenas of “Milagro de la Virgen de Atocha en las obras de construcción de la Casa de la Villa”, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.)

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