Historical European Martial Arts

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Scuola di Spada

Four-day intensive course in Bolognese Swordsmanship. Organized by EHMS Helsinki on July 8th to 11th.


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Learn About the Spadone

Read through a series of posts describing the foundations of how to use the Bolognese two-handed sword.

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Fencing in Wide Play

Fencing in Wide Play

The difference between narrow and wide play in Italian historical fencing traditions is one of the topics that comes up now and then. The Italian terms are gioco stretto and gioco largo for narrow and wide play. In my opinion the Bolognese sources manage to define (or rather, to describe) of the two but, as many things in fencing are, this is something best understood through experience.

Here is a drill that can help to highlight the difference. This drill is for students cleared for free fencing and with some experience in it, whatever that precisely means in your training group.

When commencing to fence, both fencers are given a set of guards they can fence from. All the techniques can be allowed, but the restriction applies in all waiting and other guards used before engaging. For this particular drill, three variations can be used:

  1. No restriction on the guards.
  2. Restricting to stretta guards, so guards with the point towards the opponent and hand held between shoulder and hip height.
  3. Restricting to larga guards, here including the high guards even with the point in line.

Fencing in these three variations will quickly give the fencers a good practical idea of what is gioco largogioco stretto and a mixed play of both. Try it out!

Just to remind, here are the guards that can be used in the two restricted variants of this exercise:

Gioco stretto, narrow play

  • Coda lunga stretta (with either foot forward)
  • Coda lunga alta (with either foot forward)
  • Porta di ferro stretta
  • Porta di ferro alta
  • Cinghiara porta di ferro stretta
  • Cinghiara porta di ferro alta

Gioco largo, wide play

  • Coda lunga distesa
  • Sotto braccio
  • Sopra braccio
  • Guardia d’entrare
  • Guardia faccia
  • Guardia di testa
  • Guardia Alicorno
  • Guardia alta

Refer here for illustrations of the guard positions and for easier learning, get the System of Guards video.

Flashback from 2011

Over the last five years or so I’ve posted a lot of material online about Bolognese swordsmanship. I believe I have touched some people with my work, changes someone’s lives, pushed them further along their path of study or lit a burning desire to learn this art in them. At least I would hope so (leave a comment below if you have a story to tell)!

Just tonight I stumbled along this video from the summer of 2011, shot on a sunny day at the famous fortress island just outside Helsinki, where we now also run our annual summer camp.

I can’t really say whether the video should be considered old or new, but to me it is extremely interesting. It also has almost a whopping 20,000 views! According to YouTube the viewers from over hundred nations have spent a total of over a month viewing this video. In fact this is quite astonishing. Viewer retention with a video like this is not great, but I guess those with the most will to learn have endured it all the way to the end. The analytics show a slight increase in interest on the moments when the sword is first used, and at the time of the first pair drill and finally when there are more pair drills after another set of cutting exercises. This is not surprising, but nice to see in practice. But let me get back to retention in a moment.

Why this video is so interesting to me is the technical content. It gives me a direct look inside my brain four years ago, and shows how my physical abilities have developed and changed. It is almost a scary thought that these videos will stay accessible for who knows how long (I might remove them but have no plans to), but it is also very useful. In all honesty I can not remember everything I have posted, so I literally learn from myself by watching these.

And watching this doesn’t make me cringe. For 2011, it is pretty okay. In its essence, much of the content has not changed. Evolved a bit, sure, but I still recognize myself doing and teaching many of the actions seen here. I favor the pass with the left foot way less today, the footwork in general has been revised to a great extent and the mechanics of the cuts I use today are much more elaborate and systematic. Evolution.

But what is most clear to me is that this video is a collection of somewhat arbitrary techniques executed in a seemingly progressive order, but with no explanation, no real purpose (other than to document the actions) or didactic ambition. Likewise, the material has only been interpreted, but not really broken down and re-organized to follow my thinking. I am not really criticizing my own video, but rather pointing out what has changed in my ideas. Back then it was enough to pour more pieces of the puzzle on the table for others to sort. Total ignorance of things like viewer retention.

Today I care more. I care more about quality, of course, but also about what is the message I send out. As the audience grows it feels as if there is more responsibility as well. And I want to make the material worthwhile. For you, and for myself. What is the point of making a 15 minute video if 80% of viewers only watch the first two minutes? The answer is to target the right things to the right audience. The first short instructional video I created for sale, the System of Guards (which by the way is a good companion to the above video), sports a 40% finish rate of all views. If the video cost more than one euro and fifty cents, the number might be even better, but the point is that by using different channels the right content can be delivered to the right audience.

Every time a YouTube video watcher changes from the above video to something else, it is — in purely marketing terms — a loss for me and by some extension to our community as well. If they switch, they should switch to this website or some other relevant website or video, but if they saw the video by accident, we should still make them watch the whole video. The 10% of viewers who watched the whole video probably were interested enough that they would have bothered to sign up here and buy the video, at least if the price was correct.

But let’s leave aside the argument for commercializing a bit (I suppose no one ever had a problem with that) and our little e-marketing 101 and steer back to historical fencing and the contents of the featured video. I already mentioned footwork above. That is an area where me, my students and my colleagues have worked hard in creating a true system of stepping based on Marozzo’s footwork diagram, that can be used in all sorts of drills and tactical situations. This is something that did not exist in 2011.

Likewise, the parries and sword-to-sword actions demonstrated are a bit dull and lacking in attitude, just like the monotonous (hilarious) sound effects that mark them in the video. Today, with lots of practice and experimentation with both blunt and sharp swords we have a more advanced understanding of what the bind of the blades is about.

Lastly, even if this video shows the basics it does so throw means of a catalogue of actions grouped together in a superficial way, with cuts being one group and pair exercises being another. Sure enough this makes sense, but it lacks didactic structure. It may be the basics of Bolognese school as in basic techniques, but not the basic principles or fundamental building blocks.

The focus on these three highlight the different way of thinking I have today. These three will also be the topic of my workshop in Dijon next month, and they will play a key role in the remote upcoming remote learning packages.

Remote learning program

Some time ago I asked on Facebook whether there might be interest in a remote training program, consisting of video and written training material, lesson plans and video assessments and personalized content. There was a lot of interest, so I decided to give it a go. Here is an update of how setting it up is progressing.

I have decided to start with the basics (makes sense, right?) and create material for learning the very fundamentals of Bolognese swordsmanship. This is useful for every student, regardless of how much or little experience they have, or whether they are working with a club, with friends or alone.

The lessons for the fundamentals-package are being created now. There will be six lessons (in the spirit of dall’Agocchie, though different) and an updated glossary to help learn the terminology. The lessons will be

  • Guards
  • Footwork
  • Cuts
  • Thrusts
  • Defenses
  • Tempo

In addition, there will be a brief overview of the Bolognese tradition, its weapons and history. Each lesson is a combination of videos, written material and anything that might make learning easier. The lessons will be comprehensive, but never really complete — instead I will be adding more material and improving the previous ones as time goes by. This way you will not only get one set of materials, but an ongoing look at the development of the art.

There will be multiple options for purchasing the content. You will be able to simply purchase access to the materials, but you will get more out of them if you also go for a remote training plan. These plans will include an initial video assessment and feedback, personalized training plans and content (video lessons tailored to your needs) and additional ways of communicating throughout your progress.

You can even add a private lesson to the package, if you are able to come to Helsinki or agree to meet with me in an event I’m attending or a workshop I am running.

After the fundamentals module, there will be instruction on the forms (which are perfect for remote study, but require knowledge of the fundamentals), on teaching (for those who are or want to start running a club training in the Bolognese style) and eventually on more techniques (including material specific to a master and sidearms and other weapons).

So please bear with me as we build the material for you and keep checking back for updates!

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