As I mentioned in my opening post, one of the single, most striking differences between Vadi and Fiore is the guards. A superficial glance at the two sets of guards could lead one to think they are quite similar. Both have 12 guards, for instance, and there are many names in common to in each set. Indeed, some of the guards match perfectly in name and form and can be basically considered to be the same guard.
However, I think this superficial reading would be a mistake. The similarities between names should be largely ignored – Fiore’s posta di donna has more in common with the German Vom Tag than Vadi’s guard that shares a name.
Vadi also has a number of unique features in his guards that, I believe, make his system fundamentally different to Fiore. Indeed, some of the features of his guard system are – to my knowledge – unique to any system of medieval longsword. Curious? Read on…
What is a guard?
Before we get to Vadi, I just want to be clear about what guards are. They could be:
- A ready position, to stand waiting to attack or block
- A position to close a line of attack
- A start position for an action
- A transition point as part of an action (e.g. a strike itself)
- An end position for an action
Indeed, all of the guards in either Fiore or Vadi are several of these – typically a ready position, and 1 or more of points 2-5. Any and all actions which you do should start and finish in a guard position, going through a trajectory (perhaps another guard) at the proper speed and angle between the two – whether that action is a step, an attack, a block or just a change in guard to gain an advantage.
Vadi gives us a lovely turn of phrase to explain this:
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. (Vadi, 11V)
Anecdotally, I find strong evidence for this in all weapons and systems, not just Vadi or longsword. I often find myself in situations where someone wants to spar with me using a weapon that I have very little clue how to use. My first (and often only) question is usually: “What are the guards?” This is usually all I need to perform adequately with an unfamiliar weapon (general principles about distance and timing and decent reaction times and fitness don’t hurt there either). This is because learning the guards a system has is effectively learning how to move within that system.
In practice, of course, it’s not always so simple and your knee jerk reaction will usually take you out of guard -I am still often falling back to Fiore’s guards when under stress. But then…. that’s why we train.
Principles of Vadi’s Guards
Beyond the general principles of guards, Vadi gives us some specific advice that seems to apply to all of his guards, but wouldn’t necessarily generalise beyond his system. I list these in decreasing order of confidence in my conclusions.
And follow then as the saying goes,
Place yourself in guard with the sword in hand,
If you pass forwards or back remain side-on. (Vadi, 05r)
So that you will not play in vain,
Face the side to which you turn,
And enter there, if this is not strange. (Vadi, 05r)
These two quotes come from Vadi’s section on the Principles of Swordplay indicate a preference for remaining side on with your opponent. This is one thing that I was getting wrong at first, and switching to this makes a big difference, especially for the high guards, such as posta di vera fenestra. However, this isn’t always easy to apply for some of the low guards, and can lead to some awkward positions (c.f: Posta di Cingiaro di Fora).
On one side you make defence
The forehand blows go on one side,
The backhands attack from the other. (Vadi, 05r)
Whilst the 2nd two lines don’t add much to the discussion of the guards (although Vadi talks about these two kinds of blow a lot and it is significant in the system), the first line seems to suggest another principle, that the guards are held firmly on one side of the body.
What I’m unclear of is the sense in which they “make defence” on one side. This could mean that the guards close a line of attack by directly interfering with a strike targeting a specific region of the body, or that by having only one direction to move the sword you will always be moving it in the right direction for defence. Or both. Nothing in the text tells me which way to interpret this, so for now I’m assuming it can be either (as this seems to be accurate in the guards themselves). The result of this is that the guards are all held firmly to one side – there are no centre guards (note: I will use “centre” to refer to the left/right middle, and “middle” to refer to the top/bottom middle). For what it’s worth, the positioning of the guards reflects this principle (a future post on the specifics will be next).
It is necessary that the sword should be
A great shield that covers all,
And grasp this fruit,
That I give you for your mastery.
Be sure that your sword does not
Make guards or strike far away,
O how sensible this thing is,
That your sword makes short movements. (Vadi, 14r-14v)
The first part of this paragraph gives weight to the interpretation of the guards closing down a line of attack, although on its own it would be quite cryptic. The second half, whilst giving a principle for his guards, is also an example of a recurring theme in Vadi: that one should make as small movements as possible and play close to the body. This is repeated advice, and would be odd not to be a principle within the guard system, seeing as this appears time and again throughout the text.
Interestingly, a common issue I’ve had doing Fiore has been that my defences are far too wide. Despite best efforts, I have been unable to train myself out of this bad habit. However, I find that Vadi’s guards are significantly easier to keep tightly to the body, and I have noticed an improvement in my fencing as a result. This is particularly true of guards where the sword is over the lead leg. More on that below.
Here are the guards with their names,
Each of your sides is shown.(Vadi, 16r)
This is is the rather cryptic opening to the entire section on the guards. Guy Windsor, in his translation notes, details a lot of the issues he had with translating the particular sentence, but explains that he takes this to mean that Vadi will show guards that are pairs to each other on either side – the right and left version of every guard. Indeed, most guards in Vadi have an obvious counterpart on the other side. Crucially, however, 4 don’t seem to have an opposite. As I will argue below, I think there is evidence for these 4 guards also having an opposite pair that is just left unshown in Vadi – much as Fiore misses some guards in the guard section and shows them in the plays. Likely, this is to keep to the magic number of 12 guards.
The unique features of Vadi’s guards are that he has 6 guards where the sword is held over the lead foot. This is not present in Fiore, except maybe in his posta breve, which in one manuscript looks like it might be – but this is usually interpreted as a centre guard. Likewise, it isn’t present in any of the standard 4 Liechtenauer guards or – to my knowledge – any of the other secondary guards that appear in the various texts in that tradition.
I think there are three categories of guard that explain this feature. To understand the first, we need to look at Vadi’s advice on defending the blows.
When you parry the roverso, keep in front,
The right foot, and parry as I have said.Parrying the mandritto,
Keep in front your left foot.
If this interpretation is correct, following Vadi’s advice will result in your lead foot being on the side that the opponent’s sword is coming from. As a result, in order to defend against the blow, your sword will also need to be over that foot. Remembering that Vadi explictly tells us to travel between guards when blocking, this leads me to the conclusion that some of these guards have sword over lead foot because their primary use is in covering from an incoming attack. The three guards covered by this are posta longa con spada curta, posta di donna and corona (left to right, below).
Note that all of these guards are ones that lack a partner. It is precisely because of their apparent use parrying that I believe they can be used with either foot forward – attacks can come from either side, after all (and Vadi explicitly tells us to attack on both sides). In my head, these correspond to a low, middle and high cross or parry, which can be varied depending on blow or what move you want to set up in response.
This kind of footwork is, I believe, core to Vadi’s system, where by your defence should initially be in jiocco largo (wide play), and only if you see an opening should you close to do all the fun jiocco stretto (closer play) stuff. These concepts will be explained in their own right in a separate post.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I am less confident about the inclusion of posta di donna in this list as there is little description of its use to back it up. There are supporting passages for the use of corona and curta in blocking though.
Two other guards where the sword is over the lead leg are two of his low guards – mezzana porta di fero forte and posta di cinghiaro di fora. Exact replication of these guards is probably the hardest part of interpreting Vadi’s guard as, in keeping with the principles, they lead to some odd positions.
Trying to stay side on with these guards is actually very tricky. At first I was leading with the wrong shoulder forward, when compared to the picture. This is quite natural for porta di ferro forte, but was basically impossible to remain side on with posta di cinghiaro di fora. Fixing the leading shoulder leads to an oddly positioned system.
The whole thing makes sense when you treat this guard as an end position for a fendente (downwards blow), in one of the following circumstances:
- A mandritto fendente
- From a guard with left leg forward using an acressere or no step
- From a guard with right leg forward using a passing step
- A roverso fendente
- From a guard with left leg forward using a passing step
- From a guard with right leg forward using an acressare or no step
(an acressere is where you step with your lead foot first, and your back foot follows)
When you do this, your natural end position has the leading shoulder matching Vadi’s pictures. If you add this to the fact that Vadi gives us explicit instructions to attack the opposite side at a time when you are already in distance, the guard position makes perfect sense: this is the end position for if you’ve attacked (say) a mandritto fendente with passing step, and then immediately cut to the other side without making another step.
This isn’t the only use of the guards of course, but I think it is one of them.
Posta di Falcon
This isn’t so much a category as “the other one”. I’m going to confess here that I’ve had little luck with this guard and have no real working theory for it’s use. The description is entirely defensive: it doesn’t feel like a defensive guard. Sadly, there aren’t many clues in the text.
I have been using this on both sides, because I can see no good reason not to. Having said that, there is not strong evidence for it having an “other side” as with the defensive guards. But I don’t want it to feel lonely, so for now I say it does. I am prepared to be convinced otherwise though.
To sum up the general points on Vadi’s guards made above:
- Body position should be side on to the opponent
- The sword should be held firmly on one side of the body, not in the centre
- The sword should be close to the body and not too wide,
- Each guard has an opposite number with the other leg leading and sword on the opposite side
I will make a follow up post soon showing my interpretations of the specific guards, with comments on their use. For now, thanks for making it through what ended up being a rather long post.