Martial Art and Pastime of Fops:
How Fashion and Social Issues Shaped Modern Fencing

Journal of Western Martial Art

October 2002

by J. Christoph Amberger
Copyright © Christoph Amberger 1994, 2002. All rights reserved.

This is the first part of a series of articles exploring the influences of social and status consciousness that shaped the ancient western martial Art of Defence into modern fencing.

Ever since Herodotus and Thucydides, the works of historians have straddled a precarious position between chronicling events and creating mythology. In fact the time line observed in the genre of the chronicle often provides the very skeleton for the myth, by artificially ordering and weighing events retrospectively.

It is the task of the historian to identify these myths and discover the factual reality obscured by them. This, of course, is tedious and sometimes inconvenient work After all, "Myths create an orderly past and give us a sense of a future in which we are greater than we can ever be today." [EN1]  Historical truth, however, is elusive, disorderly, and often downright uncomfortable.

Paradoxically, the information age appears to be spawning its own breed of ordered history, perpetuated and reinforced by the sheer power of repetition. Thus the striving for the orderly past, the retrospective structuring of events has also dominated the writing of fencing history in the post-Darwinian age.

One central creed of modern fencing history is that the southern European schools of the rapier filled a void in the edged-weapons skills of the Renaissance and persevered by virtue of their technical superiority. Historians of modern sports fencing, supposedly direct heirs to the True Art of the rapier schools, therefore believe they need to consider the pre-Renaissance systems with the patronizing condescension some city slickers assume when dealing with what they consider to be rustics or hillbillies.

To obtain a more balanced idea of the intrinsic values of long-forgotten fighting systems, one must discount the concept of progress and linear evolution that permeates social and other pseudo-sciences today. The present is not an improvement on the past, but merely a product of changing environments. Accordingly, the modern schools of fencing are not superior to their medieval cousins, but merely have a different way of addressing changed conditions.

Fencing history should never be considered out of its social context. Weapons and the skills necessary to handle them have never been exclusively a function of pure utility. The men and women wielding them were and are products of their respective environments, its moral and legal systems, its fashions and status symbolism. The fencing historian, therefore, has to take all these factors into consideration before making a final decision on the quality and effectiveness of a particular school.

One of the most important influences shaping fencing techniques was the status consciousness of the social strata practicing sword-play. In his glowing foreword to Barbasetti's Das Siibelfechten, Viennese publisher Victor Silberer involuntarily indicates that the success of Barbasetti's school of the new-fangled Italian sabre in Vienna may not have been based exclusively on the system's technical superiority. Barbasetti not only offered a novel and more artful way of handling the new sciabola di terreno. He was also extremely fashionable with the Viennese nobility (many of who were also officers of the Austro-Hungarian army). Officers were even ordered to take his classes. [EN2]

Much like four centuries before in Tudor London, it was the fashions of the upper social layers (and those who aspired to them) that determined what weapon, what technique was to survive in fin-de-siecle Vienna. (It is interesting that the revival of the sabre as a social and later sports weapon occurred at the same time the edged sidearm's military functionality ceased to exist.) The old "French" sabre system as taught by Hergsell fell into disuse and was replaced by the Italian method--not because the Italian sabre ("that silly little toy," as Sir Alfred Hutton had called it) was more effective on the battlefield. It simply was more fashionable among the trend setters in high society.

Social factors had been responsible for the popularity of the rapier in Elizabethan London. Whereas the straight-bladed broadsword and the quarterstaff had dominated weapon play throughout the middle ages, the Italian-style rapier found favor mostly with courtiers and their urban entourage and imitators. We get an inkling of the interconnection of gentlemanly pastimes and the popularity of the rapier in the Second Fruites of the Italian expatriate Giovanni "John" Florio, whose Italian-English conversation books were popular among the literate Tudor gentry. Florio's book, published in London by Thomas Woodcock in 1591, contains the first example of "product placement" and advertising in fencing history. In the seventh chapter, "Of civill, familiar, and pleasant entertainements betweene two Gentlemen,"[EN3] the conversation between the foppish young cavaliers jumps from "sweete waters" (perfumes) to glove fashions to rapier play. Florio "plugs" his compatriot V.S.--no other than fencing master Vincentio Saviolo--who had his quarters "at the signe of the red Lyon." Apart from his fencing prowess, "hee hath good skill in every kinde of weapon, hee shootes well in a peece, he shootes well in great ordinance, and besides he is a verie excellent great souldier." But what sets Saviolo apart from the "manie honest and proper men" among the native masters of arms was that "hee is a good dancer, hee dances verie well, both galiards, and pavins, hee vaultes most nimblie, and capers verie loflilie."

It was the appeal of Saviolo's gentlemanly bearing and the grace of his "lofty capers" that sold many Elizabethan city dwellers with higher social pretensions on his rather costly establishment. Vincentio Saviolo, member of a long-established family of Padua. belonged to the gentlemanly caste. (In Italian, the word armageri--lit.: "the ones bearing arms"--is synonymous with the English word "gentlemen".) English fencing masters as a rule were plebeians and craftsmen.

Saviolo's appeal to the upper crust of Tudor London becomes even more obvious if you consider the emphasis he puts on defining when a gentleman should assume his honor violated and how to proceed in a socially acceptable fashion. Whereas Saviolo manages to deal with the technical aspects of the single rapier and rapier and dagger in 99 pages of His Practice (1595), it takes him 178 pages to explore the intricacies of the code of honor in Of Honor and Honorable Quarrels (1594).[EN4] Saviolo addresses the specific needs and requirements of gentlemen and courtiers who had adopted the fashionable rapier with lavishly decorated and often imported hilts as a fashion accessory and who solved their "honorable quarrels" within the narrowly defined, artificial personal combat scenario of the duel.

This specialization on one target group becomes especially visible if Saviolo's work is compared to that of his compatriot Giacomo di Grassi, whose True Arte of Defense was published in London concurrently with Saviolo's books.[EN5] Di Grassi's manual covers the correct handling of more than a dozen contemporary weapons, including the staff and edged polearms such as the partisan, bill, halberd and pike. Di Grassi' s target audience is the soldier and fighting man, not the foppish courtier. And the warrior differs fundamentally from the duellist:

The soldier differeth from other men, not because he is more skilful in handling the sword or iavelyn, but for that he is expert in everie occasion to know the best advantage & with iudgement both to defend himself with anie thing whatsoever, and therewithal safely to offend the enemy: In which & no other thing consisteth true skirmishing. [EN6]
Di Grassi's philosophy is not at all different from that of George Silver, whose Paradoxes of Defence (1599) today are frequently discounted by historians as anachronistic, reactionary and opposed to "progress". Turner and Soper[EN7] argue that Silver's treatise was outdated because military combat had adopted other weapons, mainly firearms, that had made the sword obsolete. This is only partly correct. In the military, the sword itself had always been a secondary weapon. Lacking the important medium- and long-range potential of polearms and missiles (such as bolts, arrows, javelins or bullets), the sword was a weapon of last resort for in-fighting, to be used only when long- and medium-range weapons could not be applied effectively.[EN8] Again, the authors confuse the spheres of practice. Military combat or extempore fights with bandits on the crime-ridden highways were fundamentally different from swordplay at the salle or duelling ground. This is Silvers main argument: A courtier's rapier was as misplaced on a 16th- century battlefield as a red Mustang convertible would have been among the Bradley fighting vehicles of Desert Storm. Silver's criticism of the fashionable Italian establishments focused on their limited repertoire of skills. In fact, he appears to echo Miyamoto Musashi, the great Japanese strategist and author of the Book of Five Rings, who wrote:
If the school is primarily interested in building up a clientele and displays the trophies won at tournaments (...), it gives the student the wrong idea about the Way of the warrior. Essentially, such a school is trying to sell its wares to the public by using the long sword [in Tudor London: the rapier] as a means to accumulate wealth. This is absolutely not the way of the warrior.
The Italian fencing masters who set up shop in Elizabethan London were vintage "lifestyle" entrepreneurs. They provided a specialized service and catered to the comfort and whims of their customers. By providing codices of honor, they also created an artificial and self-sustaining need among courtiers to adapt to the new fashion and get acquainted with the courtly weaponry. Taking advantage of peer pressure and the nouveaux riches' characteristic of imitating even the most asinine fad. they were so successful that they practically eradicated the native martial arts, which lingered on for two hundered years but finally dissolved. split up into different "sports" or were completely overcome by the inferior but more fashionable weaponry and its techniques. As professor Kiernan puts it in his recent book:
Newcomers to a class, (...) are apt to pick up and exaggerate its hallmarks, and intransigent behaviour in the aristocracy might be worsened by an influx of new members, eager for acceptance. (...) Because in England social mobility made more room for climbers, such snobbery was exceptionally prevalent there; but everywhere duelling must have owed it a heavy debt. [EN9]
In the 1590s, Italian fencing entrepreneurs were putting their lives at stake. Challenges by native fighters, whose versatility in multiple weapons and their more efficient use actually made them superior in combats to the death, cost more than one Italian master his life. Saviolo only survived because he prudently avoided putting his skills to the test by ignoring Silver's challenge for a public trial of arms-earning Silver's ironic praise that he was a much better Christian than fighter .

But their systems' lack of versatility was more than made up by the artificial demand they created. Thus, they could be regarded the Renaissance equivalent of the 1950s "Coca Cola imperialists," a mercantile force powerful enough to eradicate an entire substratum of a millennia-old native combat culture. When the popularity of the Italian schools began to translate into political clout (the case of Rocco Bonetti will be discussed in the next issue), the fate of the martial artists was sealed. Fencing, once part of a free man's survival training, declined to become a part of class-conscious socialization. Young English provincials whose parents had high-flying pretensions for them --like Roderick Random's old schoolmate, 'squire Gawky-- would be sent to town, for their "improvement in writing, dancing, fencing," obtaining a superficial mastery of the art, never, however, being able to reach the balance and spiritual center of the true fighter. The decline and decadence of the Sword that culminated in the grotesque smallsword-wielding rakes and wags of late 18th-century English literature has its origins in the salles of Saviolo, Ieronimo and Rocco Bonetti.

EN1 see Tegner, Bruce Self-Defense Nerve Centers and Pressure Points for Karate, Jujitsu and Atemi-Waza, Ventura, California: Thor Publishing Coo, (1968) 1990; p.21

EN2 Barbasetti, Cav. Luigi Das Siibelfechten, Wien: Verlag der Allgemeinen Sportzeittmg, 1899, p.5 f.

EN3 Florio, John (Giovanni) Second Fruites, (London:Th. Woodcock, 1591) Delmar, New York: Scholar's Facsimiles and Reprints, 1977; pp. 117 f.

EN4 Saviolo, Vincentio Of Honor and Honorable Quarrels, London: John Wolfe, 1594 and His Practice, London: John Wolfe, 1595, both contained in Jackson, James L. Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals, Delmar, New York: Scholar's Facsimiles and Reprints, 1972

EN5 Grassi, Giacomo di His True Arte of Defence, London, 1594, also contained in Jackson

EN6 di Grassi, p.43

EN7 Turner, Craig & Soper, Tony Methods and Practice of Elizabethan Swordplay, Carbon & Edwardsville; Southern Illinois UP, 1990

EN8 "Targetiers," highly specialized soldiers armed with heavy shields and broadswords, were used in sieges to enter a breach first under the cover of their shields until the beginning of the 17th century. They operated not only in backward regions such as Scotland, Ireland and Eastern Europe, but even in progressive Holland. Turners assumption that Silver's armory was antiquated is valid only for fashion-conscious urban environments.

EN9 Kieman, V.G. The Duel in European History: Honour and Reign of Aristocracy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989; p. 91


Journal of Western Martial Art

This article was originally published in Hammerterz Forum * Volume 1, Number 2 * Fall 1994. The complete print run of Hammerterz Forum is available from SDKsupplies.

About the author: Born in 1963, J. Christoph Amberger grew up in what used to be West Berlin, Germany. He founded Hammerterz Forum in 1994 and as a member of two of the most respected duelling fraternities in Germany, fought seven Mensuren with the bell-guard and basket-hilt Schläger between 1985 and 1987. His website can be found at: