By Charles Dane
Free Scholar - Bankeside Schole of Defense
In 1601, Salvatore Fabris presented a four volume fencing manual to a former patron, Duke Johann Frederik. Titled Scientia e prattica dell’arme, this manual was to be the foundation of a manual printed six years later that would be considered the magnum opus of the Rapier, Lo Schermo, overo Scienza d’Arme. Throughout over 260 pages and 190 plates, Fabris presents a clear, concise and instructional treatise of Italianate rapier play and style until his very last page and plate titled, How to defend with a sword against a polearm. The Maestro presents his Scholars with a guard and initial movement but does not reveal a closing action, rather an encouragement to “investigate for themselves what kind of technique is most appropriate for this situation.” However, was this true lesson of Fabris’ closing section of his treatise, or did he have another lesson in mind?
The plate shows the Scholar assuming a guard position as such: feet square to the agent, body leaned forward at the hips, and the arms held in front of the body. The rapier is not held in the normal fashion (by the hilt, point towards the agent), but by the pommel, vertically with the point down. The primary hand is slightly above eye level, the secondary hand holds the blade slightly below the forte with the thumb providing a brace against the blade. Fabris does not advise for the secondary hand to remain in this position, but insists the Scholar “carry this hand higher or lower, depending on the height of the pole arm attack.”
Our Maestro states this guard allows the Scholar will be able to defend against most attacks, including cuts, but is specific in regards to manner of polearm1 it may be used against. Effectiveness against longer weapons2 or other weapon types3 is not commented upon, but proper use of this guard should be equally effective. Against the quarterstaff, use of this guard may be questionable4. It should be obvious this guard should not be utilized against a single-handed weapon or a two-handed weapon under a length of five feet. Against a weapon with lateral protrusions, such as a boar spear, the protrusions will most likely prevent the Scholar from putting aside the weapon effectively.
The best summation is this guard is based upon the philosophy of the best defense being that of a strong offense. The Scholar is encouraged, nay commanded, to immediately press forward, find the opponent’s “blade” and move inside the guard of the agent. The agent is then forced to surrender initiative and either disengage to regain proper distance for his weapon or change his grip to that of half-staff and attempt to use the pole arm as a slower, badly balanced quarterstaff. Thrusts and quick slashes made by the agent may be put aside or blocked, heavy cuts or bludgeoning attacks must be displaced or voided to prevent the rapier from being broken or dashed aside and the Scholar receiving a blow.
After the Maestro has explained this, he stops and encourages the Scholar to investigate the rest of the technique for dispatching his opponent. Someone with a “nimble mind” should be able to “figure out this good technique and use it with just a little practice.” Fabris, whether intentionally or not, neglected to mention what should be immediately apparent to anyone who has studied or trained in the medieval style of Longsword, particularly works such as the Fechtbücher of Ringeck, Liechtenauer and Talhoffer or the Italian manuals of Vadi and Liberi of up to 150 years later. This is indeed use of the Halbschwert or half-sword technique, albeit with a lighter, shorter blade and modified grip.
When the Scholar is inside the guard of his opponent and the pole arm is under the Scholar’s control, the opportunities presented for offense are limited only by the Scholar’s experience and education. The primary hand may be brought back towards the body, thus bringing the rapier’s point into position for a thrust into the opponent. If the agent withdraws and/or disengages his weapon for a slashing or cutting attack, the Scholar can proceed with the aforementioned thrust. If the pole arm is on the Scholar’s inside line, the secondary arm may be used to trap the shaft of the pole arm while an attack with the rapier is pressed. However, if the attack is on the outside line, it is possible to change grip and bash with the rapier’s hilt. If in Misura Stretta, all manner of grappling is possible.
Once the agent’s guard has been penetrated, there are few options left to prevent being offended. Retreating while facing the Scholar will always be slower than the swordsman can advance. Half-staffing or grappling are the only true options, the former being more preferable as it does not require discarding the weapon as does the latter. However, half-staffing will be a hazardous endeavor due to the effect the weapon’s head will have on balance and the decrease in speed.
Salvatore Fabris closes this portion of the treatise by assuring the Scholar that he “can always face a polearm with a sword alone and prevail, sometimes even more easily than against another sword!” The Maestro also claims to have successfully demonstrated this technique to audiences of noblemen and great rulers. Unfortunately, no records exist of his demonstrations or details of how he completed this technique, only the primer in the treatise.
While what is presented in this closing section of Lo Schermo, overo Scienza d’Arme is a technique of how to defeat an opponent armed with a pole arm, would it be outside the realm of possibility to suppose the true purpose of this lesson is to show how the study of the past and its application to the present is something that can never be ignored or overlooked? If this was indeed the Maestro’s intention, it will take the “nimble mind” he mentioned to see beyond the text and into this revelation.
Salvatore Fabris, Lo Schermo, overo Scienza d’Arme
Tommaso Leoni and Salvatore Fabris, Art of Dueling – Salvatore Fabris’ rapier fencing treatise of 1606, ISBN 978-1891448234 (2005)
Wikipedia, Halbschwert, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halbschwert
Wikipedia, Fechtbuch, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fechtbuch
- 1. Fabris mentions the spontone (spontoon) or half-pike, weapons averaging five to eight feet in length. He also mentions the weapon must not have any lateral protrusions, a la the boar spear, halberd or voulge.
- 2.Longer weapons such as the pike or spear (generally 10-14’).
- 3.Other weapons this guard might be effective against include the Great Sword or Zweihänder. The Scholar must press the attack once squared off against his opponent and not allow the opponent the opportunity to reestablish engagement distance for his longer weapon. As with the quarterstaff, heavy cuts or slashes should be displaced as much as possible and not blocked.
- 4.A competent quarterstaff wielder should be able to change from one of the quarter guards to that of half-staff and strike before the Scholar can close the distance.