A couple weeks ago I did something fairly crazy: I had two HEMA events in the same weekend. Shortly after I signed up to compete in the Reading chapter of the Wessex League, I was asked to teach at The Exiles 25th birthday event – The Cutting Edge. As they clashed, I decided I could compete on Saturday and then head straight to Sheffield to teach and compete on Sunday. Both events were incredibly fun and I’m glad I did it, but it was exhausting.
However, by sheer coincidence, during the Saturday tournament I successfully performed (almost) perfectly the technique that I was going to teach on Sunday, which of course gave me an incredible sense of satisfaction. Thankfully one of my club mates happened to capture that moment on his phone and, after posting to Facebook, I’ve been asked by a few people to explain what happened in more detail, so this post will do just that.
The gif below is the image I posted to Facebook. I am the fighter in the red/yellow mask.
There’s actually three elements of this that I covered in the class. Specifically:
- The approach
- The thrust
- The “Rotare”
I’ll break them down individually.
During the approach I close rapidly with my opponent without ever leaving guard. The basic idea is to be able to move quickly whilst staying in a ready position at all times, in case you’ve misjudged the distance. Fundamentally this is achieved – like everything in Vadi – by moving between several guards at speed.
There are 4 low guards:
Left to right these are:
- posta di cingiaro di fora (left leg forward, sword on left)
- posta de denti cinghiare (right leg forward, sword on left)
- porta di fero piana terrena (left leg forward, sword on right)
- mezana porta di ferro forte (right leg forward, sword on right)
Note that to transition between these guards the hand position stays roughly the same as you swap the lead leg. This enables rapid movement without needed to worry about moving the hands – and hence can be used for rapid approach.
This feature is not described in the book as Vadi actually says relatively little about the guards apart from the need to stay in them at all time, and comes instead from experience.
Vadi has a love/hate relationship with the thrust. In brief, he tells us that the thrust is deadly, but we need to be cautious to ensure that we don’t get hit back when we use it.
“I am he that quarrels with
All the other blows, and I am called the thrust.
I carry venom like the scorpion.
I feel so strong, bold and quick,
Often I make the guards plough again
When I am thrown at others and confront them
By my harmful touch, when I join them.”
(9v, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Windsor Translation)
“If the thrust enters but does not swiftly exit,
It lets the companion strike back hard.”
(10r, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Windsor Translation)
He does not detail thrusting mechanic precisely anywhere in his book, sadly. However two principles he gives us are:
“And if you wish to appear great in the art,
You should go from guard to guard,
With a slow and serene hand,
With steps that are not out of the ordinary.”
(11r, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Windsor Translation)
“It is necessary that the sword should be
A great shield that covers all”
(14r, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Windsor Translation)
In summary: every action should be a transition from one guard to another, and the sword should be used to keep us defended at all times. Combined with his concern about being hit back, and we can deduce that we should thrust to one of three guards in a way that keeps us covered from the opponent’s sword.
From left to right these are:
- posta breve di spada longeza
- posta sagitaria
- posta lunga con la spada curta (destreza)
- posta lunga con la spada curta (sinestra)
These are shown as a rest position but turning any into a thrust involves simply extending the hands more.
Note that none of these guards are in the center. By being on one side, they allow us to follow Vadi’s prescription to stay behind the “great shield” of the sword. When thrusting, we opt to use whichever will keep us defended by best interfering with the opponent’s sword. The image below (from the same tournament) shows what I mean, using a higher posta lunga to defend against a fendente as I thrust.
The “Principio Rotare”
Plan A was to stab my opponent in the face, but sadly he had other ideas and parried. The last bit of the play is after the parry I use the “Principio Rotare” or turning principle as plan B. So what is this principle? Thankfully Vadi tell us!
“So that you will understand and use
The system well, I wish to first make clear
The turning principle of the sword.
And with arms extended
Bring the edge to the middle of the companion.”
(10v, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Windsor Translation)
And there you have it: the Rotare. Nice and clear right? Er… maybe not. Thankfully, there are some other clues to help us work it out.
First, the section is titled “Ragione di meza spada” – roughly “the system of the half sword”. Half sword, in the context of Vadi and many other Italian sources, refers not to grabbing the blade but instead the portion of the fight when swords are crossed. Secondly, the section is littered with specific plays that he describes. I, and others, believe each of these is a specific application of the general principle of rotare.
The particular one used both here and in my class is this:
“Place yourself in the guard of the boar,
When you enter with the thrust at the face
Do not leave your point in the face,
Turn quickly a roverso fendente.”
(11v, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Windsor Translation)
The “turn quickly a roverso fendete” is the part where we execute the rotare. We are in the mezza spada because our thrust has been parried. Using the force of his parry allows us to cut effectively to the other side quickly without retracting our arms (“with arms extended”). This is, in it’s essence, the rotare.
Put this together with the above. Why are we in the guard of the boar? Because we approached rapidly in a low guard. How do we thrust to the face? If his sword is on his right – with posta breve keeping the sword between his sword and our head. At the point of being parried, our arms are extended, so we must execute “rotare” and bring our sword to the middle of the companion. Doing this with force requires us to use the strength of his parry to charge the blow – this, ultimately, is the rotare, or at least one version of it.
Here’s the play again so you can look at it in a new light without scrolling up.
There are two differences here to the canonical version described and that I taught. Instead of striking from the cingiare di fora I start in posta di donna (note: not the same as Fiore’s guard of the same name). This shares some features and is a perfectly fine guard to start from. In fact, you can do the same thing from almost any guard by varying whether you do a passing step or a lunge. Ultimately, the structure of Vadi’s system is best thought of as a number of principles and some example applications of the principles – this bit of the play follows all the principles perfectly and is just a slightly different application of them.
The one mistake I make that isn’t perfectly valid at the end is my final step. Vadi tells us in the same chapter:
“Making the roverso you will be helped,
Passing out of the way with the left foot,
Following with the right foot too,
Keeping an eye out for a good parry.”
(11r, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Windsor Translation)
This should result in my right foot coming behind to allow me to retreat or attack again if the strike failed. In this case it didn’t cause issues, but this footwork would have been better (as I’d end in a better position) and more in keeping with the text.
I hope this has been an interesting breakdown of the action and my interpretation of vadi. One other thing to take away: this 4 second action took months of study, practice and drawing together of separate bits across the text. People often say “why don’t tournaments look like the text?” – which always irritates me. Most people would have seen this play and blinked and missed it. Almost no one apart from me would have spotted the bit I did wrong. Sometimes it’s the subtlest of details performed at high speed that make the differences between a successful play and a colossal cock up – so keep practicing and pay attention to the little details, and it will pay off in your fencing.