When Classical Fencing Goes Bad
By Nick Evangelista
Anyone who has read any of my books or essays on fencing will immediately identify me with what is termed classical fencing. And this is true. In principle. I think that between classical fencing and sport fencing, the former has so much more to offer a prospective fencing student.
So, what, then, is this classical fencing stuff? I know, because I have lived it for forty-five years. But, to be honest, I do not accept this label as a given; that is, when someone says the word classical, they mean the same thing that I am thinking of. Is this important? There are problems and pitfalls with this animal called classical fencing, the worst of which can make it no more meaningful than the most lobotomized version of sport fencing.
To be honest, I do not even use the word classical anymore when referring to what I teach. My personal term is traditional. When I speak of traditional fencing I am referring simply to a process of learning that leads to mastery. This approach to fencing, in my mind, is free of pretense and the pomp of other centuries that often comes with classical fencing.
Traditional fencing has form and meaning, which promotes control. It is the results produced by form, then, that makes it valuable. Form is never for its own sake. We adhere to form because of the advantages in movement it provides us. But for all this, traditional fencing is flexible and creative.
In the traditional game, our sense of purpose is always crystal clear, because we having meaning in what we do. This meaning is dictated by the logic of the sharp point, which proposes behavior that would keep someone alive in a real swordfight. It is based on advantage and disadvantage. When you create an advantage, you attack. When you are at a disadvantage, you parry. This requires a blending of mind and body into an effective whole.
The result of all this is something that is both dynamic and hard fought. The bottom line is that traditional fencing has its roots in the past, but its focus is in the present. Many classical fencers assert I am not classical. I take this as a compliment.
I grew up in the traditional fencing process. Once, it was the only game in town. No one referred to fencing as classical, or even traditional; it was just fencing. You learned the French school, or you learned the Italian school. Back then, there was only good fencing and bad fencing within the framework of each school.
Fencing in the Image of Karl Marx
In time, a thing called sport fencing came along, and suddenly there was a need to separate the traditional concept of what if these weapons were sharp? from the post-modern mindset ofanything for a touch. Sport fencing was presented to the fencing world in the 1960s by the Soviet Union, and encompassed the Marxian concept of the end justifies the means.
For myself, I started referring to what I’d been taught as classical when I started writing books. My goal was simply to define the basic process of fencing from its competitive counterpart. It was only when sport fencers came swooping down on me like rabid bats that I realized the gaping chasm between the fencing I’d been taught and what was presently passing for fencing. Who would have thought that espousing the requirement for a straight arm attack could inspire such hatred?
So, the battle lines were drawn: classical versus sport. Pretty clear on the surface. But here comes a problem. Not with the sporties. They are what they are. It is easy to discern where they are coming from. The problem is in the classical community, and it is every bit as troubling and insidious as the electrically generated maneuverings supported and lauded by the USFA and the FIE. Here, I should note that I am dealing in great part with personal experience regarding this subject.
The Classical Pitfall
Once upon a time, I worked with a fencing group I thought shared my ideas regarding the traditional fencing process. I made a mistake. In my mind I knew exactly what I was talking about when I spoke of classical fencing. A hard fought, tough game, with a difficultrite of passage that one had to endure to gain mastery. It had a logic to it. The guiding rule of one’s actions was What if these blades were sharp? Form had purpose beyond looking nice. Conventions had purpose beyond ritual. I knew these things because I grew up with them in the fencing world I’d become part of. These concepts were so obvious to me that I thought when others said they were classical fencers, they were speaking my language. Maybe some were, but the group I was supporting was not. They were fencers of another generation, separated from what I’d known by twenty years. Their ideas of classical came only from secondhand information, which they interpreted in a very free fashion. It took me a long time to figure this out.
Ultimately, their ideas were fanciful and other-worldly, a kind of imagined nineteenth century refuge from the cold, shallow, technological bent of sport fencing. But in their extreme flight from the latter, they also continually undercut what I was teaching them with their own misconceptions. Their ideas of classical were mental and physical distortions of the fencing I taught them. They were more interested in artifacts of bygone days--the empty posturing of extreme body evasions, crossovers, and elaborate salutes--than in learning to make a simple, decent lateral parry-riposte. I stopped working with them when I realized I was being ignored. They hadn’t even mastered foil yet, and yet they craved useless 19th century gobbledy-gook. They ended up adding small swords, quarterstaves, single-sticks to their repertoire. Foil wasn’t martial enough for them. Maybe one day they’ll be fighting with boomerangs and bolos.
We spoke different languages.
So What Is Classical Fencing?
This brings up the important question: Just what the heck is classical fencing? Is it a 19th century artifact? A place to hide for those who are disenchanted with the 21st century? A dance? A martial art? A sport? An art and science, with the capability of transforming those who practice it into more complete human beings? Or…what?
To start with. Let’s stop calling it classical” fencing. This word had become a wastebasket for every bit of nonsense the sword world can generate, including the excesses of historical sword combat. There are, I have found no standards, and little consensus, of what classical fencing is. Some will focus in on form and ritual, some will insist on certain turn-of-the-century rules and regulations, others can only fence if they dress up in uniform that smack of different time periods. Forget the extraneous baggage. Let’s fence! Let’s fence with control and intelligence and meaning. Let’s win using our skills, not technology. That’s what fencing is about.
I refer to the version of the French schoolI teach as a traditional fencing process. Again, To hit and not be hit, and What if these weapons were sharp? are the guidelines I follow, because this is what gives the fencing I do validity. Just wanting to hit someone else isn’t enough. It has to be done in a way that would give us the best possible opportunity to survive an encounter if we had a real sword in our hand. Traditional conventions help us do this, as they are based on the practical application of the sword formed over hundreds of years of experimentation. They give us behavioral parameters outside of which we do not step, and through this specific regimen we change our behavior from everyday people reactions into fencer responses. The traditional game of fencing is not about strength and aggression; it is not about manipulating electricity. It is also not about fancy hand guards, antiquated clothing, and ritual. It is about inner control. It is a mindset that permeates our every action. We become the weapon.
I might add at this point that the fencing world also has a difficult time simply defining me. Historical fencers call me a sport fencer. Sport fencers label me a classical fencer. And classical fencers say I’m a modernist.
I simply explain to people that I teach fencing.
How Classical Fencing Goes Bad
So, how does something as vital and balanced as this traditional game of fencing get off track? First, develop a fencing game that is geared more towards technology than skill that moves fencing further and further from its roots. Then, watch as all the old-time masters who championed the Old World art and science of fencing die off from old age. At this point, masters of the classical French and Italian schools of fencing are few and far between. Techno-fence takes over, becoming the norm. Enter a new batch of fencing teachers who want to give their students more than superficiality, but they are separated from direct-line tradition by a decade or more, and have to interpret “classical” on their own. Some succeed, many more don’t. Classical fencing branches out again, some of it in a mutated state, becoming “classical” in name only. Those fleeing sport fencing are attracted to an alternative purporting to be something it is not. Now, who is really classical/traditional and who is not? In general, we don’t know until we see how someone operates.
I would like to make some general suggestions for determining the good and bad side of “classical” fencing. I know how I was taught. My teacher was from the Old World school. He learned a traditional approach to fencing. He was a member of two Olympic teams, 1928 and 1932. He passed on his traditional approach to me. I know how to teach. Our combined fencing experience alone spans more than a hundred years. I think what I do is a good yardstick to judge traditional fencing by.
I stress fundamentals without artifice, and attempt to develop a student’s self-discipline and independence on the fencing strip, but at the same time keep lessons fun and interesting. The student goes through a rite of passage, earning their movement up the fencing ladder. Students begin with foil, not as some imagined springboard to the “real” weapons of fencing, but because foil teaches essential lessons relevant to all fencing. This helps the student incorporate necessary fencing responses into their personal behavior.
Foil, epee and saber are taught in this order. The student is allowed to acquire a new weapon only when appropriate mastery of the previous weapon has been demonstrated, not because the student is bored with what he or she is presently learning. The teacher makes the decisions, not the student. Every subsequent piece of material taught is based on previous information imparted, so that it all fits together like the pieces of a puzzle, producing a picture that makes sense.
This is a traditional approach to fencing based on logical thought, and ability. Although all of this is a requirement for advancement in the learning process without exception, it is nevertheless explained fully so that the student understands the whys and wherefores. There should be no secrets saved for an elite few. Finally, emphasis is placed on development, not winning. This isn’t because winning isn’t important, but because winning should simply be a byproduct of one’s successful evolution as a fencer. I think this is a good template to follow for any fencing master/teacher/coach. It produces thinking fencers who have the ability to mature and grow throughout their fencing careers.
The Dark Side
If we employ the above description of classical fencing as a guide, we can see where other methods of teaching might be looked on as gross deviations:
The Martinet Master and the Cult of Personality. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines “martinet” as “any very strict disciplinarian or stickler for rigid regulations.” This would be the fencing teacher who demands blind adherence and loyalty without explanation, expecting perfection in the application of his teaching, in the manner of some nineteenth century patriarchal figure. Often, the “master” becomes themessage, creating an atmosphere of dominance and repression within his salle. Questions are not tolerated, as this individual never puts himself in a position where he might be challenged -- unless he feels confident enough to maintain his superiority over the student. This type of individual often develops an elite corps of students, whose job is to act as a go-between for the master and the beginners.
Within the framework of my own teaching, I always encourage my students to ask questions, to put me on the spot. I figure if I can’t explain why something is the way it is, I shouldn’t be teaching it. I also fence with my students to coax the best out of them, and if they hit me with a superior touch, I let them know it. Teaching fencing isn’t about fencing masters, it’s about … FENCING!
Demands for Perfection. Fencing should be fun. A student should be serious about learning, and should have a sense of self-discipline. But learning comes best in a relaxed atmosphere. If the student lives in fear of the master’s wrath over making errors, progress will most likely be difficult at best, and fencing may quickly lose its magic. Right up front, I tell every new student that they will mess up. This is to be expected. But these won’t be new or unique mistakes. They will be the same mistakes I made when I began fencing and the same mistakes someone else made before me, and someone else before that student ad infinitum – all the way back to the first fencing student. We all screw up on the same stuff: bent arm attacks, forgetting to use the back arm, not riposting, stepping with the front foot instead of pushing from the back leg. So, feel free to mess up. Mistakes are part of the student’s rite of passage into the fencing world. We learn through repeating actions correctly. We learn through making errors. The master who demands perfection is way off base. Either they have ego problems, or they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner. Both are teaching flaws. Just because it is called classical doesn’t mean we automatically turn into flawless machines, and dance around gracefully like ballerinas. Fencing students should be allowed to relax, make mistakes, and enjoy the learning process.
Form Without Purpose. Fencing requires fluidity and flexibility. A stiff classical pose does nothing for anyone. Simply looking classical is pointless in and of itself. Form must enhance performance, and it must produce a result. I have seen fencers so stiff from holding their classical poses in place that they could neither attack nor defend themselves effectively. This may be because they are afraid to look bad in front of their teacher, or because they think that looking like a eighteenth century fencer is the point of form. Either reason is nonsensical. We do not teach traditional form just because we see it in an Angelo fencing print from 1763; we teach traditional form because we gain balance, grace, blade control, and economy of motion from it. Touches should flow naturally from this process. If you can’t achieve this end with your form, you haven’t been taught correctly.
Classical Excuses. We might also put to rest the idea that an adherence to form as a valid excuse for losing. “He beat me because I wouldn’t sink to his sloppy level,” is a common “classical” argument. But looking nice is not a valid excuse for losing. Traditional form is supposed to enhance and maximize performance, not hinder it. The idea is to fence well and win. Form, then, has to be applied skillfully. If you lose to someone you consider a poor fencer, figure out the real reason why you lost. You won’t improve by making excuses.
Magical Thinking. If classical fencing is so good, why did that sport fencer beat me? Traditional fencing isn’t a magic bullet. It is a process. The more you hone your own process, the better it will serve you.
It is also a fact that losing can come about from a number of reasons independent of our actual fencing abilities: bad directing, faulty equipment, illness, even the simple psychological fact of not always wanting to compete. Learn to recognize the variables. Fix the ones you have power over. Adjust to the rest.
On the other hand, some fencers do extremely well in the comfort of their own school, showing much skill and potential, but freeze up in tournaments because they can’t handle the pressure of official competition. These were once called salle fencers. Should this be a problem, classical fencing won’t save you. It is a problem you must face and overcome, or not.
Then again, we can’t escape the factor of actual fencing ability. Skill level, experience, confidence, and general training can’t be overlooked. Our opponent just might be ahead of us in those areas at a certain point in time. If this is so, just keep fencing until you can make your game work for you. Patience and perseverance are virtues in fencing.
If you think traditional fencing is your problem, maybe you should be looking elsewhere, like, in a mirror.
Martial Art. It is the person who develops, not the weapon. Fencing is an internalized process projected outward. Certainly think of fencing as a martial art. This gives meaning and purpose to what we do. The logic of the sharp point is part of this. But don’t get tied up in images. Do what you do with intent and control. Master yourself and the skills you need for success. That is enough. Carrying on like some kind of 17th century swordsman will do nothing for your fencing. Ironically, the violence of fencing becomes so focused and precise with mastery that it becomes harmless in its application. That is, you will hurt no one with your skill to kill them. The martial quality of our fencing should be in our attitude, to fence one hundred percent, and should be observed in the sure, swift, determined application of whatever weapon we chose to wield. But we do not live in the Highlander world.
The Fencer’s Brain. Traditional fencing is a physical language, as real as any spoken tongue. But, as with any language, the mind guides the way in which it is expressed. If you can’t think in the language of fencing, it does not matter how much you try to copy the fencing poses in Angelo’s School of Fencing. There will be no meaning in what you do. Striking a gallant attitude is not classical fencing. It is fake.
Ritual and Affectation. Those who do not know fencing often hide behind ritual and affectation as a space filler. Overly-fancy actions and flowery language had a place in 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. But these things are not part of our time. If someone wants to make elaborate salutes that take five minutes, or talk like Cyrano de Bergerac, I guess that’s their business. Simple hand shakes and salutes are important, as they allow us to demonstrate our respect for fencing. Knowing fencing traditions and history give us a sense of continuity and purpose. It is only when these elements transcend the act of fencing that considerable problems arise.
Artifacts. I can give you a dozen good reasons why a fencing student should not be taught things like body evasions and crossovers. Even time-thrusts are questionable actions for beginners. Students should have perfected an effective lunge before they learn to volte, if they learn it at all. The volte was a rejected artifact in Domenico Angelo’s time.
There are evasive actions of earlier time periods that once had relevance because of the nature of the weapons being employed. Heavier weapons meant slower blade actions, which made certain body movements feasible. A study of fencing manuals from the 18th century, when swords became lighter and more maneuverable, demonstrates a distinct preference for standard blade intervention over earlier methods of dodging. Lighter weapons meant faster offensive and counter-offensive deliveries, and this meant less time to respond physically with anything but blade work. For instance, in Angelo’sSchool of Fencing, published in 1763, we find 25 illustrations depicting fencers lunging, and only 3 of fencers making passes. On the defensive side, 14 illustrations deal with parry-riposte actions, as opposed to 7 featuring disarms; while only 3 make use of body evasions. A single illustration depicted parrying with the hand. Clearly, Angelo, who set the fencing standard for decades, overwhelmingly advocated actions we would classify as modern. Things like passes and body evasions were simply artifacts of the past taught as a matter of convention.
But some classical teachers believe they have to teach such relics, as though twists and turns and odd footwork define classical fencing. The more exotic, the better. When the logic of fencing suggests that simplicity is the essence of effective fencing, why complicate a student’s fencing life with questionable actions?
The Magna Master: He Who Masters All. A fencing master could spend his or her entire life mastering the modern weapons of fencing – the foil, the epee, and the saber--so I am always leery of anyone who claims to be a master of dozens of fencing weapons and styles. And not just one school, but both Italian and French forms, and then into the historical, with broadswords and rapiers and small swords and whatever. I would look twice at any fencing personage who promotes their skills in this sweeping manner. Did they read a book to learn what they know. That qualifies them as literate, maybe. Who is the judge of their expertise? Marozzo? George Silver, Capo Ferro, Angelo? If they are in direct communication with these individuals, I hope they have accurate Ouija boards.
Elitism. There seems to be a strong sense among some classically-oriented groups that what they do is too complex for the average human to understand, as though movement and thought with a sharp object in one’s hand is so mysterious and profound that only the initiated can understand the secrets held within. Certainly, weapon technique historically and regionally varies with types of weapons employed, but it is not as mind-boggling as trying to understand the workings of the human genome – or your spouse. These groups often carry with them sky-high lesson costs and silly demands for secrecy. Such isolationist behavior projects an ugly elitism that does nothing to promote a desirable view of fencing.
A Final Word
I am relatively sure that a lot of fencers and teachers in the classical camp will be angry at me for this essay. I might be looked on as a traitor or an egotist. But I believe that if what we want for fencing is to come about -- to create a fencing that reflects traditional values -- we have to trim away the extraneous dead weight and make Classical Fencing simply Fencing, with no side issues spinning it off into fantasy land. The fencing we propose must be strong and not strange. It must be practical and applicable. It must have modern relevance and appeal in terms of its value, not come across as an other-worldly anachronism. When I teach fencing, I teach it to my students for those qualities that will enhance their lives, not as a retreat into the past. If the traditional fencing process is to be anything more than a quaint niche in the overall fencing world, it must blend its virtuesinto the fabric of the modern world.