How did people practise their fencing and sparring before fencing masks were invented? This was a question asked a couple of weeks ago in a thread on Reddit, and I think it’s an excellent question well worth considering. If we didn’t have modern safety equipment, how would we alter our practice so that everyone could train, improve, and go home in one piece at the end of the session?
In a nutshell, before fencing masks became commonplace, I believe that people did their fencing a lot more carefully.
Sometimes conventions would develop, with the goal of helping to keep people safe in school play.
This maybe led to slower, perhaps more graceful play as a result. For example, in the 18th century before la Boëssière invented the first wire-mesh fencing masks, it would be relatively normal for assaults (what they called sparring) to be performed in turn, so that one person would act, then the other, and so on turn-about. It was seen an egregious breach of etiquette to start your motion before the other person finished theirs. This allowed bouts to happen in a somewhat more controlled fashion without both people lunging at each other simultaneously and taking each other’s eye out.
Some relevant reading about this period of history could include an article by Malcolm Fare on the development of fencing masks, either of the books The English Master of Arms or The House of Angelo by J.D. Aylward, or this translation by Vincent le Chevalier of Jean de Labat’s fencing rules of 1696.
Sometimes rules would be put in place to keep the fencing controlled and acceptable.
In the Fechtschulen of the 16th and 17th centuries, well before the invention of wire-mesh fencing masks, there were lists of rules, and breaking a rule would result in having to pay a penalty fine. Rules could include things like “fence with control” or “don’t hit the hands” or “these various targets are off-limits” or “don’t grapple” or suchlike. If something went really quite wrong, and someone received a major injury, then it would escalate to the courts and it could be seen as reasonable to treat a training injury in the same way as another injury that came from a random violent encounter on the streets or in the pubs.
Some relevant reading about this period of history could include the book The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany by B. Ann Tlusty, a variety of journal articles about the Fechtschulen published in the Acta Periodica Duellatorum, or a translation by Ondřej Vodička of the Fencers’ Ordinance of the Old Town of Prague in 1597.
Training in armour
What about training in armour? This is something suggested by both the King’s Mirror (a manuscript of general advice for the King, from around 1250, this advice in chapter 37) and Joachim Meyer (in the “dedicatory preface” of his 1570 book).
But perhaps in these cases, the wearing of the armour was not to emulate the safety gear of modern training, but would have been to become accustomed to the weight and feeling of the armour, so that training would not have been too divorced from the experienced of using the weapons (and armour!) in battle. That is certainly the sense of Meyer’s advice; the advice in the King’s Mirror probably has this same sense, although it is not quite as explicit.
What does sparring need to entail?
The idea of “full contact” or “all out” training was perhaps only really present in the medieval tourney and its successors at the barriers, where people could armour up properly, and part of the purpose was also to gain the experience of being hit properly so that you wouldn’t freeze up when actually hit like that in battle.
Normal people training in private or group lessons with a fencing master would probably not engage in sparring the way we do today with masks, and they were significantly more careful about what they were doing and how they went about it. Although maybe that was not always the case, as this article by Maciej Talaga suggests!
The needs and possibilities of modern practice are somewhat different from the needs and possibilities of practice in previous centuries. We should be careful when we think about how training was done in the past so that we do not conflate things unhelpfully. We also need to avoid the temptation to apply modern “common sense” to historical situations and should instead look for evidence from the period in question, because perhaps the modern “common sense” would have been seen as quite a peculiar and unhelpful idea back then, even though it might make sense to us.
We could take this line of thinking a little further. What does sparring need to entail in your club today? What is sparring supposed to achieve, and how does it help you become better? Perhaps set aside any fast or glib answers and take the opportunity to think about it a little more deeply than you might have done so already. Might there be other ways to engage in sparring that might also be beneficial? Does it always need to be high intensity, “full contact” beatings, or might there be scope for other methods?
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.