Contrapasso, the origin of the afterblow

One of the great controversies of the HEMA tournament rules during the past years, the so-called “afterblow”, promotes careful and safe fencing. While different in many rule-sets, it has become a norm. At the same time it has also become common knowledge that this rule — in some shape and form — was part of the Bolognese competition rules of the 16th century.

But if I am not mistaken, this only spread into the knowledge of wider public after, or roughly at the same time as the rule started to appear anyway. The purpose was not to re-create the Bolognese competition and their contrapasso, but to prevent the game from becoming simple “sword-tag”, to remind us of the violent roots of the art and to promote withdrawing from the fight under cover after a landing a hit. Sometimes this rule has also been applied in ways that help us get rid of the problem of scoring double-hits.

The discovery of the Bolognese rule-set was very convenient. The “afterblow” is described in two distinct sources and it offered a way to contextualize the modern rule with a historical source text. There is no problem with this, of course, but we need to understand the original instruction in its proper context to answer questions such as how did they use it and why did they invent it in the first place?

Let’s first take a look at the sources. The two works to describe the rule are Antonio Manciolino’s 1531 (originally from the 1520’s) brief printed work *Opera Nova. *Manciolino begins with a general discourse on the art of fencing, where he gives various technical and tactical advice and sheds light into the contexts where the art of fencing existed. Quite a lot can be learned from this introduction with a careful reading, and the subject is touched upon even by some authors who were not masters of the sword, when they described the complexities of the duel. But we will now focus solely on the “afterblow”, and Manciolino has the following to say about it:

It is not legit, after having received a hit to make more than one riposte rushing forward with a step. For all skills must be well utilized and so one can recover his honor.

This is right before he describes the famous, approximate scoring system of three points for the head and two for the foot. Together these are interesting and enough to make us crave for more detailed explanation, but not enough to paint us the full picture of the way they engaged in the gioco, the play with blunt swords.

Interestingly though, the direction seems to be forbidding more strikes instead of allowing one, unlike the modern rules we have. This may, or may not, be indicative of the seriousness of the fights they had. Perhaps delivering multiple strikes was common — and certainly Manciolino seems to confirm this by lauding those fencers who redouble their strikes, and by warning against letting your opponent overwhelm you with strikes.

To our luck we have another source to describe what is basically the same thing, but with exceptional accuracy. The so-called Anonimo Bolognese gives us both more details about the context as well as the reasons for why this rule was in place. The reason seems to be something like speculated above, as the following chapter from the manuscript tells us:

In the art of fencing with swords that do not cut, called play, it is not legit for a fencer after he has taken a hit to pass more than one step forwards to wound his opponent.

The reason is that if one wanted the liberty to pass at him as many paces as one wanted, it would no longer be play, but rather the way it is done in actual combat.

And because sometimes it happens that a fencer, after being hit, is overcome by anger and retaliates with as many strikes as he wants while being oblivious to the strikes his opponent lands all over his body. When such strikes are given those who are above to watch can not discern what has happened, him having rushed upon his opponent with more than one pace in such beast-like manner.

But since I’ve said that one can not pass more than one pace forwards after having received a hit, and others say that one can pass as many paces as  he wants at him, I reply to them that this act is used in the art of combat where, when one is wounded it is in his faculty to pass forwards and backwards as much as pleases him.

But sometimes it happens that one receiving a hit gains the spirit to rush upon his opponent to take revenge, but the strike is of such nature that he is unable to move and instead falls to the ground. And for this respect in the art of the play one can not pass forward more than one pace after having received a hit. Because should you want to take more steps I give you the above reasons: that were the swords sharp the strike would be of a nature that wanting to rush forwards you would be perhaps fall to the ground.

From this detailed description we can confirm what Manciolino wrote, but also learn that the reason they had this rule was to stop the fight from escalating, as that would not have happened with sharp swords. Likewise, we learn that the rule was in place for the audience, so that they were able to clearly make out the actions of the fencers. Everyone who has judged a modern-day tournament has probably experienced the difficulty of recording fencing phrases longer than a hit or two into their memory.

The clear contextual difference between fencing for giocare and combattere is clear, and also echoed by Antonio Manciolino in various places. Manciolino also describes the role of the audience in deciding how to fence in a few of his general regole. Still, the effects of real sword combat reflect back into the competition, and the master is well aware, perhaps even annoyed, how blunt sword fencing distorts swordsmanship. Still, the play was a part of all three first Bolognese masters’ works, Achille Marozzo, Antonio Manciolino and the Anonimo. Only later sources stop discussing the use of blunt swords, so far as Angelo Viggiani, a Bolognese swordsman who was not part of the mainstream schools, scorning their use in total.

So the evidence points us to the “afterblow”-rule originally being there to ensure clean fencing, but not to promote withdrawing under cover but instead to prevent the fight escalating into a brawl after the first hit landed, since it wouldn’t have had the same effect as a sharp sword. But even this leaves us with questions. Did they use protective helmets when fencing? Or did they use very light blades? Common sense would say that a beast-like attack while ignoring blows is a recipe for lethal injuries — and that even the first strike of a blunt sword could be able to deliver that.

Another interesting thing is that if we read the Anonimo further, all the way to the hundreds of example plays it includes, we find that many of them have sequences where one gets hit but still continues with a strike. Exactly as allowed by the rules. These attacks are always parried by the fencer who landed the first hit, so perhaps the rule was there to promote safe withdrawal also, after all? In the plays that use a buckler or sidearm, it is very common that after the hit our fencer recovers while making the sidearm cover against any possible counter strikes.

But why is the afterblow called a contrapasso? And what exactly is that anyway?

The Anonimo, in the original Italian, describes the “afterblow”, or the opponent’s actions after he has been hit like this:

Et perché a delle volte asai porei acadare che uno giucator, contrapassase da poi il ricevuto colpo innanzi quanto ie piacese adosso al suo nemico per essere vinto dalla colera…

In my translation above I had used the word “retaliates” to describe the afterblow, even though the word contrapassase could be translated simply to counterstepping or counterpassing. While discussing this passage with my good friend, fellow swordsman and researcher Francesco Lanza of Septem Custodie, he pointed me to the true meaning and origin of this term.

Dante Alighieri in his La Divina Commedia, describes in the end of the 28th song the punishment of Ahithophel, counselor to David, King of Israel, and who betrayed the king by offering military advice to his son Absolom who was revolting against his father:

Perch’ io parti’ così giunte persone,
partito porto il mio cerebro, lasso!,
dal suo principio ch’è in questo troncone.
Così s’osserva in me lo contrapasso.

And for I severed people thus joined,
severed, alas, I carry my brain
from its origin, which is in this body.
Thus observe in me just punishment.

This “just punishment”, the contrapasso, is literally eye for an eye, as mentioned by John Florio’s 1611 Italian-English dictionary. While the term is no longer in active use, it is used in this meaning when discussing it in the Dantean context.

In fencing responding to a hit landed by landing a hit, punishing your opponent with the same, is clearly then something we can call a contrapasso. Of course it is not entirely accurate, and whatever their precise intention with the rule was is bound to be somewhat different from what we are doing today. Still the term sounds nicer than an “afterblow” — especially when speaking of Italian sword arts.

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