This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 24th June 2016. It has been edited and improved for posting here.
I have a curved sword. When I fence with it, am I practising Polish sabre?
The reconstruction of 17th century Polish fencing with the sabre has been gaining in popularity for a few years now, with various researchers and interpreters working to improve their own understanding of the issue, and teaching their ideas at events and gatherings. Several items of research have been produced and published, including translations, articles, books, and sword typologies.
However, along with the surge of interest among scholars and the publication of research, it is becoming more common to hear people state that they “do Polish sabre”, or to make assertions that this or that kind of guard or technique “can be found in Polish sabre”. In fact, it is quite possible to see some people “doing Polish sabre” and for the resulting fencing to look no different from how they “do British sabre” or indeed how they “do messer”. There are of course people who put incredible amounts of time and effort into training a fencing system that could well be an excellent reconstruction of 17th century Polish fencing with the sabre, but there are also people who dabble, and so “doing Polish sabre” has become a relatively common refrain.
We must examine some definitions before we can go much further. Is “doing Polish sabre” the same as, or different from, “fencing with a Polish sabre”, or “trying to recreate 17th century Polish sabre according to Starzewski”, or “fencing according to a system extrapolated from several different sources with similar features or contexts”?
After all, if you pick up a karabela, or a batorówka, or a hussar szabla, and use it in a fencing match, then you are definitely fencing with *a* Polish sabre. But if you pick up a 19th century British sabre, or an 18th century French sabre, then you are no longer fencing with a Polish sabre, because the weapon is different.
If you are trying to recreate 17th century Polish fencing with a sabre according to the 1830 treatise by Michał Starzewski, then you would be achieving this goal by attempting to remain true to the source material, but you would be diverging from this path by choosing to utilise dussack techniques from Meyer or sabre “frog DNA” from Hutton.
If you are trying to fence according to a system extrapolated from several different sources with similar features or contexts, then this provides a much wider scope for utilising actions or concepts from different sources. However, it is important to keep in mind that the scope is very broad and that some techniques or concepts may be coming from “frog DNA” that is not from a source explicitly on the subject of fencing with the Polish sabre.
An example of this warning can be seen when discussing a hanging parry, particularly that with the point hanging to the fencer’s outside rather than his inside. This action is seen in a very extended fashion in Angelo’s late 18th century work Hungarian and Highland Broadsword (the “sword arm protect”) and in a much tighter fashion in Hutton’s late 19th century work Cold Steel (the “high octave”). A similar kind of parrying action (the “bogen”) with the dussack can be found in Meyer’s 16th century work Grundtliche Beschreibung der freyen Ritterlichen unnd Edelichen Kunst des Fechtens. However, Starzewski does not mention it at all in his own treatise. So it is an action that occurs within other sabre systems of a later period, and it occurs in dussack treatises from a slightly earlier period, but does it occur in “Polish sabre”? We have no way of knowing for sure, as the only sources that describe 17th century Polish sabre say nothing about the matter.
So if you are “playing with a Polish sabre”, then there is nothing wrong with performing this kind of parry. If it keeps you safe, then go for it. On the other hand, if you are trying to recreate 17th century Polish fencing with the sabre, according to Starzewski, then you should leave this action out of your repertoire, as he does not describe it as part of his system. However, if you are trying to fence according to a system extrapolated from several sources, then this kind of action may well feature in one or more of the sources you choose to use for “frog DNA” in your reconstruction, so go ahead and use it, but be cognisant of where the technique comes from, and be aware that it may have had quite a different purpose or set of mechanics behind it when used in its proper context in its original source.
When you next engage in fencing with your Polish sabre, or when you engage in discussion about the topic, ask yourself what you are trying to achieve and what you are actually doing when you “do Polish sabre”. You might find that people on different sides of discussion have a different goal in mind, or have taken a different approach to achieve the goal. Furthermore, people have different tolerances for historical accuracy or for rigour of scholarship, and some people may be perfectly happy to work with what others would deem “unfinished” or “inconclusive” research, and purists might even reject an interpretation entirely if there is too much “frog DNA”!
Awareness of what it is that you are doing, and attempting to achieve, is an important step towards more effective communication with other fencers, researchers, and groups within the international HEMA community.
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.