Beginner's course done

A bit over a month ago we started our first-ever beginner’s course for the Bolognese sidesword – or just Bolognese swordsmanship as I like to call it. It might be useful for others to reflect back on what we learned during the process.

We decided to run the course with a set material that would be sufficient enough for bringing people up to a light free-fencing level of skill while also giving a basic overview of the Bolognese techniques and concepts.

That is rather ambitious, of course, especially broken down into nine lessons (of which the final would be dedicated to free fencing). But I think we managed pretty well overall, and the material we generated for the course is extremely good, and I will eventually share it publicly in some sort of video format. Hopefully.

What we wanted to cover were simply:

  • Basic movement and footwork; gathering steps, triangle steps, passes, and so on
  • Throwing effective strikes with the full body (mandritti, roversi)
  • True edge parries to both sides
  • False-edge parry from the left side
  • Provocations against an extended weapon by beating it from above right and below left
  • Basic feints
  • Some grappling and close play

The footwork was covered by simple stepping exercises and then leading to free-form movement with a partner, sort of “free fencing” without weapons. Much of this was tied into the warm-up exercises.

Though their names were not emphasized, porta di ferro stretta and coda longa stretta, basic right and left side guards were practiced. From those, mandritti and roversi were thrown with a preparing action of lifting the hand and letting the point draw a full circle beside the body for generating a full and powerful strike. Strikes were primarily left with point in presence (half strikes). This way of preparation also will eventually render the wrist supple enough for tighter tramazzoni (strikes done just by wheeling the sword from the wrist).

The true edge parries were done against a mandritto from coda longa (right side) and against a roverso from porta di ferro (left side). It is the former that is more difficult to execute correctly, and in all honesty, we are still figuring out how exactly we think it is supposed to be done.

It is easy enough to make the parry work, but to make it work right is a whole different story. It is surprisingly rare that we get a clean true edge parry with a quick follow-up riposte done in free fencing, even at more experienced levels. This is an interesting problem for us at the moment, but regardless, it is a core concept and will probably always belong in the beginner’s course curriculum. Hopefully as a more refined version in the future. Right now we simply go with a strong parry with the stronger part of the blade, done with no preparing movements, with a step of the right foot to the right and letting the left circle or follow behind while we riposte. Preferably ending with two distancing steps with some defensive actions. We initially decided to riposte with a roverso tondo but generalized it to a roverso sgualimbro, as the requirement for the horizontal cut unnecessarily complicates matters.

In fact, we also went through an exercise of practicing all (almost all) six lines for the cuts, but during the course, we decided we want to begin with Joachim Meyer’s four cuts -exercise instead as we find it more useful and easier to grasp. It’s not Bolognese, but… neither am I. The point being, with a beginner’s course, we are more inclined to teach something that we have found useful than to be too literal with the sources we use. There is also now a joke of there having only been one Joachilleus Meyerozzo, so mixing the sources just a little bit can’t be too bad now can it?

For the true edge parry against roverso, we continued with an imbroccata (descending) thrust, this being the only thrust practiced during the whole course. Most thrusts were left out to cut down on material (I personally hold the cut pedagogically before the thrust, I might discuss this in length elsewhere) and to make the course safer as we were limited in masks. We did follow the thrust through properly into porta di ferro, with the attacker passing back to give way for the defender's execution of the thrust.

The false edge parry, or falso, was done from porta di ferro larg against a mandritto. This is another difficult parry, as it needs to be timed correctly, or it will otherwise fail. It is difficult to tell what the exact conditions are where it should be executed and against what kind of attack, but clearly the opponent has to be quite far away for this defense to be effective. We initially riposted with a roverso but decided to eventually change the riposte to a mandritto as that flows better with other actions and makes it possible for us to practice the combination of falso manco and mandritto sgualimbro as a solo exercise without the need for introducing the more difficult falso dritto or some other, more complicated, cutting drill. No follow-up or retreat from measure was introduced for this action, though a step back with a roverso would have been fitting.

The provocations are an umbrella term for all manner of indirect attacks, whether it be feints, beats on the opponent’s blade, or anything else. The Bolognese material offers a wide variety of examples to choose from, but we wanted something that ties in with the material already taught. We needed both a clear tactical reason calling for a provocation (although they could be thrown in a variety of situations) and a way of performing them so that the previous exercises can be repeated without too much change.

We came up with (in my mind at least) a clever set of two exercises, which are simply the same true edge parries practiced again from both sides, but so that the initial attack is provoked by hitting the opponent’s already extended blade.

The first begins by hitting the sword with a mandritto, the opponent then attacking with a roverso as their blade is struck, and then countering this with the parry and imbroccata.

The other begins by hitting the blade with a rising falso (thus tying the third parry into the provocation exercises) and then parrying with the mandritto and riposting with roverso as per the first of the parrying exercises.

It is important to note which way the person with the extended blade holds their feet, so they can easily pass with their attack as the blade is struck from one side or the other. This makes the beginners focus on detail as they perform and can be enforced to whatever level necessary.

The provocations were useful, but it worries me how rare it is to find a case in the sources where one’s blade being struck would act as an initiator for an attack – unless the attack was avoided with fallaciata, a disengage under the incoming beat. For beginners, the beat is a clear cue, so for now, we will accept it but may revise it in the future.

Finally, we practiced another way of provoking, the feint. This was done mandritto-roverso against coda longa stretta and with a double mandritto against porta di ferro larga. The feints teach the tramazzoni and also molinetti. (wheeling cuts done by letting the blade rotate on the outside of the body) and emphasize proper footwork and blade control, and they work in reality exactly as we practice them, so they are very good to keep in.

In the end we practiced some of the close quarters techniques and takedowns, but in the future I think I’ll simply include a few presas and have a more detailed look at them. Too much hand-on-hand will only complicate and draw attention away from sword-work.

The last day saw the free-fencing. We went with our tried and tested (at least to be relatively safe) format, where newcomers are pitted against the instructors or senior students, and they either have a go at controlled free-fencing or free-form attack/parry drilling. This was successful and everybody seemed to enjoy the event. The below video is from the event, though doesn’t actually feature the beginners fencing.

I’m satisfied with the material, but the course (and the weekend seminar including the same material with a few tweaks) drained me quite empty of energy. We have now shifted to our outdoor training schedule for summer, and some of the beginners have been showing up for classes, which is great. I’m expecting to get my own spirits high soon enough as well but might decide to take a few weeks away from swords to relax and rethink.

I have a feeling it is now time we make sure the students get some practical application of their skills during summer with lots of free fencing and basic drilling, and we’ll have a more technical period in the autumn, maybe picking up sidearms as well. I will be thinking about it!

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