Center for Historical Fencing

A resource hub for those teaching Medieval, Renaissance, or Enlightenment Swordplay

Teaching and Training Methods

This section offers a variety of articles on best practices in teaching historical fencing and training historical fencers.   These appear in our newsletter and are archived as articles on this website.  Contributions by Center members are encouraged, editorial assistance is available, and all authors receive appropriate credit.  If you have a teaching or training method that works well, we would like to have it in this library.

No. 1 The Interpretive Lesson

by Maitre Walter Green

The traditional model of the modern fencing lesson is instructor driven.  The instructor determines the content, decides how to present it, and then teaches it to the student who is expected to learn what the instructor has taught.  In all probability, this is also how the vast majority of historical fencing lessons were taught.

However, is this how all historical lessons should be taught today?   The history of the modern historical fencing movement suggests that we need to do more than instructor presentation of subject matter in the role of font of all knowledge.  Virtually everything we do today in Medieval and well into Renaissance sword play depends upon study and interpretation of original sources.  The development of an expert historical fencer depends upon that fencer being able to read (in original or in competent translation) and interpret the historical record to discover the technique.

That reality suggests that there is a need for something other than the modern teaching lesson to convey new material.  I suggest the use of a guided discovery learning process that I will call the Interpretive Lesson.  It has two goals - to teach a new technique and, in the process, to teach how to interpret historical sources.  My Long Sword program has used this model over the past year and found that it engages students, results in better learning, and creates better shared understandings of the techniques and tactics with more eyes on the problem. 

The development of the lesson varies to some extent based on the nature of the source being used, and the number of elements that describe the technique.  I will take work we are currently doing using the Goliath manuscript, specifically Mike Rassmussen's translation of the Krakow manuscript.  Goliath provides (1) a version of Liechtenauer's teaching verse, (2) a gloss explaining the verse by an uncertain author (commonly attributed to Peter von Danzig zum Ingolstadt) and (3) illustrations of some of the techniques.  To illustrate the process:

(1)  We read the original Liechtenauer teaching verse, and based on it try to develop an understanding of the technique and its use.  Usually this results in a very incomplete idea of what the master intended.

(2)  We then read the gloss, compare it to the verse, and attempt to execute the technique using the wording of the gloss.

(3)  Finally we compare the technique as we understand it from the gloss and verse to the available illustration (and this may require looking at more than one illustration to make sure you are using the correct one as placement may be problematic).  Based on that comparison we come to a final interpretation.

(4)  And, if other sources are available, we may compare our understanding to how those sources describe the technique.

(5)  Then we drill in the technique.

Selection of sources that you will use for any particular manuscript is always open to question.  Some translations and interpretations are better than others.  However, in teaching in a group setting where you are training people who want to understand historical fencing, but who will not be specialists who dedicate their fencing life to one master, there is a balance of cost, ease of access for your students, and ease of use in class.  If appropriate you can explain differences in interpretation in class.

This is not a fast lesson - when combined with warm-up, other skill activities, and bouting one verse and one gloss fills up our normal one hour lesson time.  Obviously more complex material will take longer, and less complex or single elements will take shorter. 

From the instructor's perspective, this is a demanding way to teach.  You have to a strong background in the weapon, read the material, gain an approximate understanding of the technique (it will change as you and the students work through the source), have questions ready to guide the students, know supplementary material that will help their understanding, and be willing to relinquish control, both physically and intellectually, as the students work through the material.  However, I believe that it is an important way to engage your students with the actual text, and to develop fencers who can fence historically. 

No. 2 The Set Play Lesson

by Maitre Walter Green

Tactical training in fencing manuals of the Middle Ages and Renaissance includes set plays.  These are routines of offensive, defensive, and counteroffensive actions involving two participants.  As routines they exercise the fencer in specific techniques, show how these techniques may be combined, and, when studied in- depth, reveal the Master’s underlying tactical doctrine.

The advantage of the set play as a way to teach tactics lies in its authenticity.  You are using an actual exercise from Ringeck (for sword and buckler) and the interpretations of English manuscripts by Heslop and Bradak, or you can construct one from Meyer, Saviolo, etc.   You are teaching tactical combinations the Masters felt important enough to teach to their students. 

To use a set play students must have already learned the fundamental skills of both weapon handling and footwork that will be used in the lesson.  And you must have learned the exact steps used in the play, and identified the tactical lessons the students should learn.  Depending upon the source you are using, you probably have had to identify exactly which actions the opponent will do. 

Teaching the set play is progressive.  The individual with the initiative takes the first action; the other student then takes the logical counter envisioned by the historical master.  The exercise continues until the steps of the set-play in the source material are exhausted, usually representing the point at which one of the participants has been hit decisively.  A sword and buckler set play from Lindholm and Svard’s 2006 interpretation of Ringeck’s fourth sword and buckler technique illustrates this: 

(1) Fencer A steps forward cutting a horizontal strike from right to left at Fencer B, covering his hand with his buckler,

(2) Fencer B parries with the buckler, reinforced with the sword,

(3) Fencer A strikes around to the opponent’s right side,

(4) Fencer B defends with sword and buckler on his right side,

(5) Fencer A steps forward, pressing upward with his blade to threaten the head,

(6) Fencer B raises sword and buckler together to cover the head,

(7) Fencer A pulls his sword back, using his buckler to keep Fencer B’s focus high, and thrusts under Fencer B’s buckler to the abdomen or groin.

Probably the best way of teaching is in chunks of action.  Pair together an offensive and a defensive action and have the students practice that combination.  Then pair another set of actions.  Finally have the students work through the entire sequence.

The set play should start slow, stressing correct placement of weapon, control of footwork, and management of timing and distance.  As the students learn, speed can increase as long as control is maintained, but review at slow speed to identify and correct errors is a must.  If you have chunked the lesson into smaller parts, it is also useful to go back and practice those specific parts as well.

What should the students learn about tactics from this set play?  Fencer A’s continuous action stresses the importance of retaining the initiative; Fencer B is forced to remain reactive throughout.  Both Fencer A and Fencer B work to keep sword and buckler operating as a unit, but Fencer A also learns there is a time and place to separate the two.  Fencer A learns to manage distance to keep pressure on the opponent and provide enough space for blade movement in close quarters, all while keeping the buckler engaged.  Finally, Fencer A learns the importance of continually changing the axis of attack (right to left, left to right, up, and down) to constantly pose new threats that force Fencer B to continually change the defense. 

This means that once they practice to a reasonable level of proficiency, you should ask questions to engage the students, to test understanding, and to help them learn from each other.  The following questions seem to work well to complete the learning process:

… what is happening at each stage of the set-play, and why?

… what does this tell you about the doctrine of how to fight with this weapon?

… how could you apply this doctrine to other fights?

If you get blank looks, either they have not practiced enough or they are enjoying hitting each other far too much.

There is a down-side to the use of Set-Plays.  One fencer is clearly the winner of the play, and excessive practice of a particular play trains the opponent to perform the role of losing.  This embeds a pattern of action that may emerge in a bout to the detriment of the fencer who has played the role of opponent too many times.  This suggests that the Set-Play should always be done as an exchange drill and argues against over-reliance on them as a teaching method.

The set-play is one of a number of ways to teach historical swordplay.  It is easy to think of this as just a longer, more complicated drill.  However, that misses the set-play’s true value.  Students learn not only the mechanics of chaining together a series of actions, but they are also encouraged to understand the tactical principles of the fencing system they are learning.   

No. 3 The Bouting or Combat Lesson

by Maitre Walter Green

Historical swordplay was a combat skill. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance even the sporting use of the sword in tournaments, fechtschules, and prize playings carried with it the risk of significant injury. Not until the Enlightenment does fencing start to resemble the modern safe sport. This history suggests that, if you are going to teach students how to use a historical sword or polearm, it should include realistic training in how to fight with the weapon.

As an instructor you are thus challenged to find a lesson format which replicates combat but at the same time incorporates teaching. The answer is the bouting, or combat, lesson.

The objective of the bouting lesson is to teach the application of tactics and technique in a realistic environment where the student has to identify and execute a successful action that leads to a hit on the instructor. This is not just freeplay, using any technique at any time. Instead it is planned as carefully as any other lesson to result in improved student performance.

The instructor first determines broad lesson objectives - is the focus offense, defense, counteroffense, or a mixture of related actions (offense with the defense against a counterattack, for example)? From the broad objective, the instructor then determines narrower objectives and specific tactics and techniques. For example, if I were teaching rapier using Giacomo Di Grassi's system, I might determine my broad objective is to work on offense with renewed attacks. A narrower objective would be to work on combination of thrusts and cuts, and a specific technique might be the thrust-cut-reverse cut-thrust sequence.

In planning such a lesson there are several important additional factors that the instructor must consider:

First, what is the experience and training level of the student? Bouting lessons can be used early in the student's development, but must be adjusted to the student's level of development and physical skill.

Second, what are the underlying rules? At one level, this addresses the basic rules you use in your program for bouting between students. If you are teaching in a late 1500s context with rules that prohibit the use of the point as "unfriendly" (to use the terminology of the time), training long sword students in point techniques for bouting may not be what you want to do.

But there is a more subtle level. Do you allow the student to execute any technique, but only acknowledge the tactics or techniques on which the lesson focuses? Do you reward every correct execution by allowing a hit or do you frustrate some? Do you correct performance (generally corrections are not done in bouting lessons as the student should know the technique well and be focused on application)? Do you take advantage of student errors in general technique to correct by hitting? Make certain that the student understands these rules, because if you do not, fencing may stop with an outraged "why did you hit me?"

Third, how many techniques will the lesson involve?  These lessons are not designed for the student to employ every technique he or she knows.  The focus should be on a relatively small number of techniques, perhaps only three or four.  The instructor should choose techniques the student knows and can perform in a freeplay environment, preferably techniques that make sense when used together. 

Finally, what is the length of the lesson? Generally bouting lessons are relatively high intensity demanding a high level of student focus. To maintain that focus, lesson length should be restricted to 5 to 10 minutes in length, with perhaps 20-50 hits.

In teaching the lesson, the instructor creates situations that the student can exploit to execute the technique or tactic. Probably the simplest example is stepping into range for a footwork delivered attack. The student has to evaluate the instructor's movement and actions, determine whether they allow a successful action on his part, and choose whether or not to act. This is not just two fencers whacking at each other, having fun, and thinking that they are learning. Instead it creates a high demand on the instructor who has to recognize the pattern of student activity and create a mix of easy but realistic openings, more difficult opportunities for the student to create the opening by falsifying (feinting), and surprise actions that require the student to react to a completely unforeseen situation.

The bouting lesson is the logical culmination of the variety of teaching and training lessons that can be taught in a historical program. It has the advantage of both high realism and high student control, and offers superior fencing training to the student who has a solid grasp of technique and tactics. Carefully managed, it is an important part of your training program.  

No. 4 The Flourish

by Maitre Walter Green

Is it possible to train in complex movements with the sword without having an opponent or drill partner with whom to work? If so, is this training of any value? Did fencers do this in the Middle Ages or Renaissance? The answer to all three questions is "yes," and such drills should be a regular part of your historical fencing training.

 

For over 100 years Japanese martial artists have used kata, series of steps, kicks, punches, or weapons actions as a traditional part of their training. Such kata often include 50 or more distinct movements. Among the founders of modern karate one or two kata formed the basis for lifetime study, although the number of kata have proliferated and their quality arguably declined with the widespread commercialization of the martial arts.

 

In Europe some 400 to 500 years before the development of karate kata, swordsmen were using series of movements to flourish, a term found in both German and English Long Sword texts, with solo footwork movements and blade actions much like the kata. Lindholm's and Hull's translations of Dobringer's (attributed) gloss of Liechtenauer's teaching verse for the Long Sword includes a flourish that starts with the gate or barrier guard, includes displacements, and ends with attacking blade work. This flourish appears to be a prebouting display of expertise for the amusement of spectators and the intimidation of opponents.

 

The surviving English texts interpreted by Heslop and Bradak include flourishes, as well as a variety of other exercises that can be done without an opponent. They view these as training tools suitable for solo practice. In fact, the more complicated sequences may actually be better practiced without a partner in order to avoid training the partner to excel in the role of target (not something that you would want in an actual sword fight).

 

Thus there are actual historical flourishes that can be used for training. However, you can construct flourishes for your students using the following guidelines:

 

The first rule is do nothing that would not make sense in an actual fight. That seems obvious, but it can be easy to forget that these were weapons designed to kill people, and that the people who used them had no interest in training in techniques that would result in their own death or serious injury. Flourish does not mean that you have a license to do unhistorical or fanciful weapon twirling.

 

Second, decide what mix of technique you will use. You may focus solely on attacks. However, incorporating changes of guard and defensive actions help develop a broader range of abilities. At the same time you should decide what distances the flourish simulates. A flourish with a concentration on renewals of attack at short distance is a much different exercise from one in which the offense is based on passing steps and full arm actions.

 

Third, restrict your flourish to a number of steps that can be remembered easily. Fifty steps becomes as much a memory exercise as a fighting one. Dobringer's flourish at its most basic is eight actions; the English Additional Manuscript 39564 flourishes are longer, but still under two dozen movements (depending on how you count them).

 

Fourth, have the movement flow forward and back. This is a practical consideration to enable you to fit your flourish into your available training area. However, German practice technique is movement based with footwork accompanying strikes; English practice does include actions delivered apparently without footwork.

 

Fifth, have your actions end up in the right place. Each blade and foot movement should flow seamlessly from the immediately preceding movement. If the students have to stop and reposition out of sequence to make the flourish work, each repositioning would create opportunities to be hit in an actual fight.

 

Sixth, write down a description, let it sit overnight, and then see if you can execute it as written. Revise if necessary, and then give it to your students to try.

 

Finally go back and make certain that what you have designed makes tactical sense. Is it something that a Medieval or Renaissance fencer would do if faced with an armed opponent desiring his harm or death? Only after these checks are done can you be confident that it can be assigned for practice.

 

The flourish can become an excellent tool for warm-up, for solo practice, and for displays of skill during open houses or other recruiting activity. It offers your students a challenge that they bear full responsibility for meeting, helping to create pride in their performance. And it further connects them to the history of fencing and to the importance of fighting spirit in swordplay. 

No. 5 The Warm-Up Part I

by Maitre Walter Green

Training sessions for modern sports typically start with a warm-up to increase the readiness of the athletes for the higher-intensity activity that will follow. Although we do not have substantial direct evidence of how fencers in the Middle Ages or Renaissance prepared for their training sessions, it makes sense for modern teacher of historical fencing to use warm-up activities for their students.

To design the warm-up portion of a training session, it is vital to understand the purpose for taking your students through generic exercise before starting the core of the training. Warm-ups serve two important purposes:

First, they increase physical readiness for physical activity. In simple terms they bring the body from a normal state to one in which the student can reach a higher level of performance for the challenges of the fencing lesson.

Second, they increase psychological readiness for physical activity. This is particularly important in historical swordplay because your students need to transition from the normal concerns and distractions of daily life to the focused state required to learn to handle large weapons effectively.

Notice that I did not say that warm-ups help prevent injury. There is substantial statistical and anecdotal evidence that a significant percentage of sports injuries occur in warm-up activity. Because your student is in a transition period in the warm-up, the exercises and activities you use have to be carefully screened for safety.  This includes appropriateness for the age, physical condition, and coordination of your students.  Over the 40+ years I have been involved in modern and historical fencing, the worst injuries I have seen occurred in the warm-up portions of training sessions.

I also did not say that warm-up is for conditioning. Fencing specific conditioning to build strength, speed, flexibility, explosiveness, etc. requires more time than is available in a warm-up activity. Conditioning requires its own dedicated training time.

So what do we do to warm-up fencers who are learning historical weapons? There are some realities to consider in planning your training:

First, warm-up activity should generally not extend beyond 15 minutes. Current sports science research has identified longer warm-up as a fatigue generator that actually limits performance in competition. There is no reason to think that it does not do the same in training sessions. There are some situations in which you may want to train your students under fatigue conditions, but in general having the students leave the best of their performance in the warm-up is not desirable.

Second, most instructors who teach historical swordplay have limited time for teaching, driven by the time space is available, other demands on their students, their own personal schedules, etc. This means that general conditioning activities and non-fencing specific training fights for time with the core of teaching Long Sword or Rapier or Small Sword, etc.

Third, it is a generally accepted principle that the more closely warm-up activity resembles the actual movement patterns that are needed in any physical activity, the more effective the warm-up is. This extends to the degree to which you do aerobic (not fencing specific) versus anaerobic activity (more fencing specific).

With these constraints a warm-up program that uses exercises and games similar to those typically used in modern fencing will serve to meet historical needs. However, in the next part of this article, I will suggest exercises more specific to the movement patterns and tactical requirements of historical fencing that you can incorporate in your training sessions for an effective warm-up. 

No. 6 The Flourish and Breaking the Four Guards

by Maitre Walter Green

If you fence Liechtenauer tradition longsword, at some point you will have been exposed to the concept that each of the four guards is broken by a specific master cut.   So how do we get our students to remember, and, better yet, be able to default to the correct technique, how to hit the opponent in a specific guard?

I was thinking about this problem as I prepared a lesson one day, and then it struck me - the flourish.  In the December 2013 issue of Historical Swordplay (No. 2013-06), I wrote about the flourish, but I did not at the time have in mind a specific teaching and training application beyond those actually extant in the small body of English manuscripts.

The result is a simple flourish, easily learned, and easily practiced.  It assumes that an opponent mirrors your choice in guards.

(1) on guard in from the roof - from there ...

(2) break the imaginary opponent's from the roof with a  thwart stroke ...

(3) recover to guard in ox ... then to from the roof

(4) break the opponent's ox with crooked stroke ...

(5) recover to plow ... then to from the roof

(6) break the opponent's plow with squinter ...

(7) recover to fool ... then to from the roof

(8) break the opponent's fool with scalp parter ...

(9) recover to from the roof.

The sequence of dual recoveries first sets in mind  the guard you will be attacking.  It then moves to from the roof as the easiest position from which to launch the attack.  As a challenge in attacking with a different movement pattern, you can execute from the first guard in the recovery.

Initially this should be done very slowly with close attention to the details of execution.  Although the opponent you are attacking is imaginary each cut should be directed to hit the expected target.  Only after each step is correctly executed at slow speed should the fencer attempt any acceleration, and speed should be increased only gradually, checking technique at each increase.  If you can do it perfectly at slow speed, eventually you will be able to do it perfectly at fighting speed.  But if you don't master slow speed execution, high speed will be an adventure in uncontrolled flailing. 

This approach could be criticized on the grounds that it does not teach tactical choices, and that it presents a rote one situation-one technique approach.  However, making tactical choices implies that you have a go-to technique so that you can consider other options.  Absent a go-to all responses have to be improvised, and that is a risky approach.