Good fencing, bad fencing, and incorrect fencing

Liverpool HEMA lesson
Roland and James performing an exercise during a lesson at Liverpool HEMA. Photo by Keith Farrell, 2017.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 20th May 2016. It has been edited and improved for posting here.

Can good fencing ever be considered “bad fencing” or “incorrect fencing” at the same time?

Sometimes people integrate actions or concepts into their sparring that could be described as “good fencing”. However, sometimes these actions or concepts might also be described as “bad fencing” or “incorrect fencing” at the same time, and I think this is an interesting paradox that is somewhat unique to historical fencing.

This article will present a few examples, and it is not the intention to say that any one skill or behaviour or idea is “bad” or “incorrect” all the time. Rather, the intention is to suggest circumstances that may lead to certain actions or concepts changing from “good” to “bad”, or vice versa, or perhaps remaining “good” but suffering from being “incorrect” according to the system. If you take from this article the inspiration to think about these notions, then I will have achieved my purpose, and hopefully more people will consider what counts as “correct fencing” in the system that they study.

Some definitions might be useful

These will be rather broad, working definitions, and of course will not be applicable to absolutely every situation.

Good fencing: this would be an action or concept that helps to keep the individual safe, or that works on a higher tactical level than simple bladework. It might involve clever use of timing, distance, feinting, deceit; it might be use of tactics or previous knowledge of an opponent. Use of “good fencing” skills may help a fencer to win sparring bouts.

Incorrect fencing: this would be an action or concept that is alien to the system or source that you purport to study. For example, some people believe that Fiore dei Liberi’s sword in two hands treatise does not include any winding actions; therefore, including winding actions in sparring would be “incorrect fencing” for someone who studies this treatise and holds that interpretation. Another example would be Angelo’s broadsword system, where slipping the lead leg on every defence is a staple part of the system; therefore, not slipping the leg, or choosing to parry low with the sword blade, would be “incorrect fencing” for someone who purports to study Angelo, since the system would deal with the situation differently.

Bad fencing: I would define this to be an action or concept that is not entirely alien to the system or source that you purport to study, but is not the recommended option. It could also be defined as something that could cause damage to the equipment or environment, that might be in the source, but that should be frowned upon in modern practice for whatever practical reason. For example, tapping a sword blade on the floor “to distract” an opponent might be a case of “bad fencing”; the deliberate choice to take a hit on your arm in order to deliver a hit to your opponent’s head might be a scoring tactic in a competition, but it is clearly a case of bad fencing, even if it does score points.

I shall present five further examples, to discuss how these definitions might apply in different situations.

Example 1: sun in eyes

If you are training outdoors, then one common piece of advice is to manoeuvre so that your opponent is facing into the sun. This is widely regarded as “good fencing” or “good martial arts”, and I agree with this assessment completely. Obviously in a “real fight”, this would be something to strive towards achieving.

However, in a training environment, I have seen people busy manoeuvring frantically with regard to the sun, better terrain, walls, corners – and no longer paying any attention to the fencing. Rather than sparring, it becomes a game about positioning, and the purpose of the sparring becomes about gaining the better position rather than developing sparring skills.

In fact, often it becomes a game where one person is prepared to win at the cost of environment. For example, if combatants Alan and Bob are playing the “sun in eyes” game with sunlight streaming in through the hall’s windows, or if they are trying to back each other into a corner, the time may come when one of them is unable to do the actual fencing, for fear of striking the wall, ceiling, or windows with his sword. I have seen this happen in small indoor environments, where one fencer has due regard for the safety of the environment, and the other fencer doesn’t care – the latter fencer then delights in pushing the first fencer into a corner, because then the careful and considerate fencer stops striking in an effort to preserve the walls or windows.

You may disagree with me and say that positioning is definitely a sparring skill, but my point of view is that while positioning is an important part of sparring, we shouldn’t turn a sparring lesson into a game solely about positioning; a lesson should focus on developing one skill or the other, and should stay on track.

If the purpose of the lesson is to learn to fight outdoors, then of course positioning with regard to the sun or terrain is going to be the object of the lesson, and so this would not count as anything but “good fencing”.

However, if the purpose of the sparring is to try to integrate technical concepts that were learned earlier in the lesson, but students are too busy vying for position to give any attention to the technical concepts learned earlier, then the purpose of the sparring has been corrupted and the positioning skills then become examples of unhelpful fencing and should be discouraged.

Decide whether the purpose of the sparring is to become better at technical skills or to become better at positioning with regard to sun and terrain, and then stay on track to learn the desired skill.

Example 2: time hits/thrusts

A “time hit” is a strike that begins after an opponent starts his attack, but lands on him (often on the arm) before his attack can land on you. A “time thrust” is the same concept, just with a thrust instead of a strike. These are often very important skills in Olympic fencing, especially in the practice of épée. In various eastern martial arts, the same sort of concept exists.

While the ability to hit your opponent before he can hit you is clearly an example of good fencing skills, relying on time hits (especially to the arms) can hold back your ability to learn other parts of the historical fencing system that you study. An example that I see regularly is when practising sword and buckler, people often rely on time hits to the arms rather than trying to apply any of the teachings from the system they purport to study; similarly, with longsword, many people are happy just to strike at the arms or hands rather than working towards “deeper” targets.

If your source of choice focuses upon working from the bind, or closing the distance while controlling the opponent’s sword arm, then this is the “good fencing” to which you aspire. Relying on time hits might be an example of “good fencing” in the study of épée, but in fact might be “incorrect fencing” for Lignitzer’s sword and buckler.

Obviously, if the opponent attacks and leaves his arm completely open, then it is only reasonable to hit him there. It would be unreasonable to suggest otherwise. But if he covers himself well on his way in, and you go to great lengths to be able to make that time hit, then that effort could be better spent trying to apply the techniques of fencing system that you have been studying.

Example 3: distractions

Distracting your opponent’s attention is a great way to be able to hit them safely. If your opponent is easily distracted then it can be very simple to distract them and land a hit before they are paying attention again.

I have seen several fights when the inferior fighter realises that by sparring properly, he cannot get past his opponent’s defence, so he spends more and more effort trying to distract his opponent. This often takes the form of shouts, tapping the floor with the sword, flourishing wildly in an effort to confuse the opponent… This is usually the mark of an inferior fighter, in my opinion.

Distracting an opponent can be an example of “good fencing”, but when relied upon because actual sparring skills are deficient, it becomes an example of “bad fencing”.

Example 4: parry/riposte – being too defensive

Sometimes a concept that is described as good fencing by one or more sources might not be good fencing for students of another source.

For example, the concept of fencing with parry/riposte (to defend against an incoming attack and then give an immediate follow-up attack) is an example of “good fencing” for practitioners of 19th century British sabre and broadsword. However, in Liechtenauer’s longsword, the emphasis is on using techniques that maintain or steal the initiative, rather than settling into a back-and-forth, I-go-U-go style of fencing. Therefore, while parry/riposte is a good option for broadsword or sabre, it could be an example of “incorrect fencing” for Liechtenauer’s longsword.

Example 5: feinting

While it is clearly a useful skill to make a feint to trick the opponent so that you can land the real attack, and is probably an example of “good fencing”, it may sometimes be an example of “incorrect fencing” according to the stylistic elements of a given system.

In my previous article discussing feints with the longsword according to Ringeck, I made the case that perhaps feinting in the manner of modern fencing is quite alien to that system, and that the feints present in that system were either of a different nature, or worked in a slightly different fashion to achieve a slightly different goal.

So, this is a good example of when “good fencing” might actually be “incorrect fencing”, according to an interpretation of a piece of source material.

Conclusion

Sometimes, actions or concepts that might normally be considered “good fencing” skills could be considered as “bad fencing” or “incorrect fencing”, and therefore sometimes should be discouraged. It might often depend on the context, the system, or the desired outcome of the activity.

Why is this worth thinking about? People with other experiences may have a different perception of what is “good fencing”, from their different experiences. If we can think about the context of what we are trying to do in historical fencing, and the stylistic elements that we are trying to follow, then sometimes what can be considered “good” or “bad” fencing, or “correct” or “incorrect” fencing, might change places.

At the very least, giving some thought to these issues will help to reinforce what you think of as “good fencing” for your system, and you can emphasise those actions or concepts when you teach or when you fence.

Keith Farrell

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 have authored Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick and the award-winning AHA German Longsword Study Guide, and maintain a blog at www.keithfarrell.net where I post regularly.