Reflections on Fencing

In my twenties, I dabbled a bit in fencing. That means I took a class and then, for a while, went to fence for practice, sometimes with my friend, Tom Dunlap. Like Tom, I had been interested in swords, but then Tom had actually bought one while we were traveling in the Middle East. My class was at the University of Texas in the late 70's, and subsequent practice fencing was there or in Los Angeles about the same time. By the time I hit thirty, the lunges were getting to be too much for my legs, and I wasn't getting any better anyway. One session at UT discouraged me when my opponent simply kept slashing at my foil with his, scarring the blade and accomplishing nothing else.

I was reminded of this recently by reading The Fencing Master by Arturo Pérez-Reverte [2000]. I liked the book, but one thing puzzled me. Don Jaime Astarloa speaks a lot about his fencing foils, but without much sense that the foil is only a practice weapon. A foil is very light, very flexible, and without a very large guard. None of these characteristics is very good in a real fight. I would have expected Don Jaime to have talked about other straight swords as more appropriate fighting or dueling weapons, like the épée or the rapier.

Perhaps I have missed something and Pérez-Reverte knows something I don't. Or perhaps he did not do quite enough research. But I am sure that a foil is really just for practice and is not a proper dueling weapon. An épée is more like it -- heavier, stiffer, and with better protection for the hand. The latter is helpful even in sport, since the target to score points in foil fencing is a limited area of the torso. But in épée fencing, you can score anywhere, and a hit on the foot or hand is as good as on the torso. Just as in a real fight -- though "just as good" might not be quite the right expression. An épée blade is not only heavier than a foil, but it has a triangular cross section, making it stiffer than the square foil blade. A heavy hit with an épée is going to make an impression, even in sport.

What one usually doesn't see in movie sword fighting is what the foil and épée are for. They do not have an edge. They are pointed and piercing weapons. This isn't as spectacular as men slashing at each other in the theatrical mode of fighting. But the point is an advantage. In a diagram from Sir Richard Burton's The Book of the Sword [1884], we see why. When the man with the saber raises his sword to strike, he is completely exposed and interposes no barrier to an attack. The opponent with the épée then lunges and runs him through. The straight weapon enables one to stand off further, and thus be safer, while gaining the advantage in distance to the target, putting the opponent at the disadvantage. Lunging is also faster than raising a sword and striking. This is not exactly the close quarter clash of arms that film makers and viewers like, but it is deadlier.

This circumstance was already appreciated by the Roman military writer Flavius Vegetius Renatus (De Re Militari, c.390 AD):

They [i.e. Roman soldiers] were likewise taught not to cut but to thrust with their swords. For the Romans not only made a jest of those who fought with the edge of that weapon, but always found them an easy conquest. A stroke with the edges, through made with ever so much force, seldom kills, as the vital parts of the body are defended both by the bones and armor. On the contrary, a stab, though it penetrates but two inches, is generally fatal. Besides in the attitude of striking, it is impossible to avoid exposing the right arm and side; but on the other hand, the body is covered while a thrust is given [i.e. with the Roman shield], and the adversary receives the point before he sees the sword. [Roots of Strategy, edited by Brig. Gen. Thomas R Philipps, Stackpole Books, 1985, p.84]

Except for the absence of a shield, Vegetius could well be describing Burton's illustration.

A rapier is a little different from foil and épée. It has a flat cross section and is doubled edged. It is still not a weapon for slashing and hacking, but it can injure with edge as well as point and, well, you can try slashing or hacking in an emergency. What straight weapons needed that might not always have been available earlier in history was good steel. A thin blade can break if the metal isn't quite right. The thin blade is lighter and easier to carry than a broadsword. And thus more easily carried by a peacetime nobleman or gentleman. The pointed weapons are also more suited to single opponents. In the middle of the battlefield your point isn't much help if someone is suddenly coming up to your side. Vegetius' rule is not qualified by that, because Roman soldiers fought in formation, with one's side protected by adjacent ranks.

Thus, the pointed weapons do not replace the edged. And traditional fencing includes the saber, which was, with its equivalents, long useful as a cavalry weapon, or in close quarter fighting (as on ships), long after the advent of gunpowder. The elegance of the pointed weapons is suited to a kind of elegant combat, like the duel, and less to the rough and tumble of battle. A rapier may not be quite sturdy enough for real battle, but it is more versatile than the épée and would be more useful at need.

Not that I don't appreciate bladed weapons. In the 80's I was collecting swords, mainly from outfits like Museum Replicas. My own épée, although blunted, is not really a sport épée, but something more elaborate. And I particularly like the rapiers. But I also always liked Japanese swords. Elsewhere I have discussed the differences between kendô (the "way of the sword"), iaidô (the "art of drawing the sword"), and kenjutsu (the "art of the sword"). The Samurai sword has a single, curved edge, and so is supremely suited for slashing. Kendô has only one thrusting stroke, to the throat. I also acquired a large claymore, the two-handed "great sword" of Scotland, mainly because I am Scottish and it was interesting to handle so large a sword.

I thought that one thing The Fencing Master lacked was any explanation of the parry positions. Other books by Arturo Pérez-Reverte sometimes have helpful diagrams, and this would have been a good candidate. I like the system. There are three basic variables, high and low, inside and outside, and the position of the hand. "High and low" are self-explanatory. "Outside" is towards the back (dorsal), remembering that one only shows a side to the opponent, to present the smallest target. So in facing a right-handed opponent, "outside" is to their left (as in the diagram). Inside is towards the front of the body (ventral), or to the right of a right-handed opponent (as in the diagram). The position of the hand is to be turned palm up, or supinated, or palm down, or pronated. Lying on one's back, you are supine. On one's stomach, prone. So with the right hand rotated counter-clockwise, and the back of the hand up, it is pronated. The diagram then shows the eight possible positions, which have a traditional numbering, which can be used in English, or one can use the Latinate forms of the names, as Pérez-Reverte does. Whether the sword goes up or down from each position is partially a matter of tradition and partly a matter of what is comfortable and natural. In my own instruction, we were really only taught the supinated positions. I don't think that the Third and the Fifth were used much at all, while the Second and Eighth were more or less equivalent. Our basic en guarde postion was in the Sixth, and the basic parry was to move the sword straight across into the Fourth. That would parry most straight lunges to the torso.

A couple of great things about swords. They never require loading, and you never run out of ammunition. Of course, they don't work unless you can close on the opponent. And not everyone is going to wait for that, or need to. It is not the modern world, as Don Jaime Astarloa was learning all too well.

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Sir Richard Burton, 1821-1890


Sir Richard Burton led an extraordinary, 19th century sort of life. Service in India, exploration of Africa, secret pilgrimage to Mecca, ambitious translation projects:  all these bespeak a high Victorian ambition, confidence, and curiosity that are hard to match in any other era -- certainly not in ours. But he was also a rather unusual Victorian. His investigation of homosexual brothels in India led to a lifetime of interest in sexual practices and pornography. This made him a bit of a black sheep in respectable society. And he looked the part, swarthy and scarred. What then still perplexes people about his life was his marriage to the respectable, pious, and apparently rather dim Isabel Arundell. Chacun à son goût, but when she burned his new (pornographic) translations, and then all his papers, after his death, to protect his reputation (!), both he and posterity were most ill served by her intellectual limitations.

Burton's original companion in African exploration was John Hanning Speke (1827-1864). They didn't get along, and when Speke set off on his own, discovered Lake Victoria, and pronounced it the Source of the Nile, Burton could never credit that a mere leap of intuition could count as discovery. It didn't help, as it turned out, that Speke had been right. By then, however, Speke was dead, in a mysterious hunting accident that some thought was suicide, since Speke was emotionally distraught over the controversy of his disagreement with Burton.

Although I would not want to be compared to Speke on most points, I did tend to think that my friend from my Beirut sojourn, Tom Dunlap, and I rather looked like Burton and Speke, respectively. Tom was not scarred, but he was black haired and bearded and once was briefly mistaken for an Arab at the Syrian border, while I, like Speke, had a red beard (now white, after the passage of years). Without the abilities or adventurous disposition of the likes of these people, I did feel some small kinship surveying the lonely desert in places like Palmyra in Syria -- which was free of tourists and quiet, as Petra in Jordan or the pyramids in Egypt were not.

Recently, my attention has been focused on Burton again. When my wife and I were in London in 2005, we set off to Highgate Cemetery to visit the graves of Marx and, I believed, Burton. However, we soon discovered that Burton was not there. I was under a misapprehension. Back in our hotel, a little research on the internet revealed where Burton was. But we didn't have time to go. As luck would have it, I could return to London in 2006 and took a morning to find Burton.

Since Isabel was Catholic, she wanted a Catholic burial for the two of them. She also had an unusual tomb designed:  a stone replica of the tent that Burton had used on his travels. This is in an obscure location:  the St. Mary Magdalen Roman Catholic Church, at 61 North Worple Way in Mortlake. Mortlake is in the south-west part of Greater London, just below a bend in the Thames River. It is on a rail line that is not connected to the London Underground but instead is part of the South West Trains network that originates in Waterloo Station. Richmond, which is accessible from the London Underground, is the second stop west from Mortlake. If one takes the train down from Waterloo, you walk back east along the north side of the track the way the train came. The church is set back from the street a bit, but the works are stone, including the streetside residence, and this distinguishes the structures, even if there were not a conspicuous sign announcing the church and the tomb. A passage to the left of the church, closed by 3:30 on weekdays, leads back to the cemetery. The tent of the Burtons is at first inconspicuous, back around the church to the right.

Having sat there more than a century now, the tomb, far from crowds of tourists, or anyone, is a little eerie, especially with a most unusual feature, a window in the back accessible from an embedded ladder. The simple coffins of Burton and Isabel are visible inside, looking a bit decayed, as though the remains might tumble out some day. Some time back, there apparently was some vandalism at the tomb. But everything looks fixed up and, indeed, cleaned up, in comparison to some older photographs. If Isabel thoughtlessly destroyed Burton's final work, perhaps she made up for it somewhat in the production of this inspired mausoleum. It is nearly, entirely of itself, worth the trip to England.

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