Teaching Fencing: Curriculum and Diploma

What makes a fencing master? And how is the body of knowledge he (or she) is supposed to transfer to his students to be defined?

Dr. William Gaugler explores the historical background of fencing accreditation and codification…

by Dr. William M. Gaugler, Maestro di Scherma and Honorary Member, Associazione Italiana Maestri di Scherma and Accademia Nazionale di Scherma, Naples

If fencing is to be taught as an organized body of knowledge, and those who teach it are to be certified as having accomplished professional training that qualifies them to teach, then the questions of “curriculum” and “diploma” enter into the matter.  As is commonly known, the word “curriculum” is derived from the Latin currere, or to run a course or career, and it is employed today to indicate a course of study.  Diploma, of course, comes from the Greek and Latin word, which was used by the Romans to signify a small tablet recording the privileges awarded a soldier for completion of his service, and after the first century A.D., was given at discharge.  Naturally, at present it refers to a certificate issued on completion of a formal course of study.

Now, it will be remembered that the point of swordplay is to touch and not be touched. Accordingly, a curriculum of study in fencing technique must be designed to accomplish this end.  From a practical point of view, the underlying principle is quite clear:  if both fencers are hit, then both can be wounded or even killed. Consequently, the fencing master’s task is to teach his student how to avoid double touches.  And from this, the progressive structure of actions and counteractions in the fencing lesson is developed, as well as the program of study for fencing teachers.  Here the synoptic tables first devised by Italian fencing masters in the nineteenth century provide the logical organization for the sequence of actions and counteractions that can occur in a fencing encounter. These begin with the offensive action and then move through the parry and riposte and end in the counterattack.

This also provides the order in which fencing actions should be taught.  For example, the glide to the outside high line is executed in one movement from one’s own engagement in third (French sixte) and ends in the adversary’s outside high line.2  But he can parry it with third and riposte to the low line (detached) or outside high line (contact), or he can parry counter of fourth and riposte to the inside high line (detached or contact) or outside low line (flanconade in fourth).  Moreover, instead of parrying and riposting, he can also counterattack with the time thrust or passata sotto.

Our current method of determining ranks of fencing teachers is based on the Medieval guild system and provides two (Italian) or three (French) levels of teaching accomplishment and licenses:  apprentice or instructor, journeyman or provost, and master.

The apprentice learns the foundation elements of a craft, the journeyman exercises the skills he has acquired as an apprentice and prepares for the masters examination, and the accomplished master, who enjoys the respect of his peers because he has reached the highest level of technical skill in his discipline, will have passed a rigorous examination given him by a commission of senior masters representing the association of masters.  In the visual arts, during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the master-candidate presented the commission with an example of his finest work, which was fittingly called a “masterpiece.”  And in the fencing community the master-candidate gave the commission a practical demonstration of his skill in the use of various edged weapons, often fencing some of the commission members at a public site, as in the trials for master-candidacy that the Brotherhood of Saint Marcus (Marxbrüder) held in the market-place of Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany. This fencing brotherhood or guild (Fechtergesellschaft) issued a document to masters of the sword (Meister des Schwertes) known as a letter of freedom and privilege (Freiheits- und Privilegiumsbrief). 

Whether by the apprenticeship system, which was the most common, though not the most efficient means of teaching, or the school or academy, fencing instruction necessitated transferring to the pupil the accumulated body of knowledge acquired by fencing masters over a period of some five hundred years, that is, from the Renaissance to the present.  At bottom, dueling practice determined what was sound and what was not:  unsuccessful actions disappeared along with their unfortunate inventors.

The logical organization and classification of fencing actions for effective teaching, and the question of protecting teaching standards, appear already in sixteenth-century fencing literature.  For instance, Achille Marozzo  Opera noua (Venetia, 1568) Libro primo, Cap. 1, p. 3, tells the master how he should begin instuction, advising him to demonstrate all the principal thrusts and cuts (tutte botte principale), and from these, Marozzo states, all other movements are derived.  And he is concerned (Libro primo, Cap. 4, and Cap. 6, p. 4) with beginners fencing when the master is not present, as well as students teaching what they have been taught, without the master’s permission (…ancora di non insegnare mai a persona alcuna quello, che da me uoi imparareti senza mia licenza….).   And to help the reader comprehend the classification of offensive and defensive actions and positions, Angelo Viggiani, Lo schermo (Vinitia, 1575) Terza parte, pp. 58 and 78, organized principal cuts and thrusts, as well as guards, on illustrations of trees.  On the tree of principal cuts and thrusts, cuts are shown on the left branch, and point thrusts on the right.

In the following, or seventeenth century, the problem of unqualified teachers also troubled Ridolfo Capo Ferro, Gran simulacro dell’arte e dell’uso della scherma (Siena, 1610), p. 29, who warned his reader against some who quickly, after having learned a little, and having even less practice, commence to teach others, and teach without foundation and rule (…che sono alcuni, che subitto, che hanno imparato vn poco, & hauendo ancora vn poca di pratica, si mettono à insegnare altrui, & insegnano senza fondamento, ne regola….). 

Later in the same century Francesco Marcelli, Regole della scherma (Roma, 1686), Libro primo, Cap. 2, 24, p. 13, expressed the need to require fencing teachers to undergo examination by their peers.  He praised a commendable custom of the past, in which someone who claimed to be able to teach was examined in public by a Senate of Excellent Masters, and if after examination was approved, received a public license, and was declared worthy of the rank he had acquired through his own effort (…ogni qual volta, che ciascheduno pretendeua d’insegnare, si esaminaua in publico Senato di Eccellenti Maestri, e venendo doppo l’esame approbato, con publiche patenti lo dichiarauano degno di quel grado, che à costo della propria virtù si hauea acquistato….).

In France, already in 1567, the King’s Procurator General confirmed the statutes of the maistres joueurs et escrimeurs d’espée, authorizing them to form an association.  And in 1656 the fencing masters of the French Academy of Arms in Paris and Suburbs received letters patent from Louis XIV for a coat of arms and hereditary nobility for six of its members who had practiced their art for twenty years.  Domenico Angelo, The School of Fencing (London, 1787) p. 88, tells us something of the fencing master’s examination in Paris during the eighteenth century.  Angelo writes:

The dagger is never made use of in Paris, but at the reception of a fencing master:  when an usher has finished his apprenticeship under an able master, and is presented to the public to be received as a master, he is obliged to fence with several masters.  After having performed with the foil alone, he is forced to fence with sword and dagger….no man can be received among the masters unless he hath served a regular six years apprenticeship under one master (a custom only made use of in Paris).

A written text with definitions of actions and the method of their execution, plus technical and tactical observations, is an important pedagogical instrument in the development of a formal education in fencing instruction.  In Italy the book by Rosaroll Scorza and Pietro Grisetti, La scienza della scherma (Milano, 1803), and in France the volume by A.J.J. Posselier dit Gomard, La theorie de l’escrime (Paris, 1845) were among the first publications of this kind in the nineteenth century.

In the 1871 edition (pp. 38-40) of their work, Rosaroll and Grisetti state that order in teaching the principles of a science or an art is essential, and that in fencing theory discussion of the straight thrust (botta diritta) must be succeeded by that of the disengagement (cavazione).  And this order, they observe, must also be maintained in the practical lesson.  Engagement (attaccare), they say, signifies putting one’s own sword in contact with that of the enemy, making an angle (that is, dominating it, strong against weak or middle).  Then they say that when the adversary engages the weak of your blade, you must remain composed, arm extended, body immobile, and with an instantaneous, and almost invisible movement, you should lower your point, circle under the bell guard of the opponent, and deliver a straight thrust; and this action, they note, is called a disengagement.  If your sword is engaged inside, they add, you thrust to your enemy’s outside, and vice versa.  They next distinguish between disengagements performed from engagement (stabile), and in time (in tempo), that is, the moment when the enemy comes to encounter your blade.  Finally, they observe that the disengagement in time is always used to avoid the adversary’s actions on the blade.  In contemporary Italian fencing theory the disengagement in time is classified among the counterattacks.

Gomard (p. 122) defines the engagement (l’engagement) as the action of crossing the steel with that of the adversary.  And he (pp. 149-151) defines the disengagement (dégagement) as the action of passing the point of your sword from one line to another to direct it to the body [of the opponent].  Then Gomard describes eight different  disengagements, and the cut-over (coupé), which he says is nothing more than a variety of the disengagement.  And he states that he prefers the disengagement to the cut-over when the enemy engages near the strong because the route is shorter; and he observes further that it is better to employ the cut-over, rather than the disengagement, when the strong is engaged near the adverse point, since it is a shorter way to the opposite line.

In comparing these two definitions of engagement and disengagement some interesting and important differences come to light.  Rosaroll and Grisetti define engagement as blade contact with domination, while Gomard defines it simply as contact by crossing blades.  Rosaroll and Grisetti make no mention of the cut-over, which in Italian is called an angulated disengagement (cavazione angolata), but Gomard does, and in this follows the old Italian tradition of disengagement over or under (cauare di sopra come di sotto) as mentioned by Capo Ferro, p. 39.

During the Reign of the Two Sicilies military fencing schools existed in Palermo and Messina and two more were added by a royal ordinance of 1852 at Capua and Caserta under the directorship of the Marchese di Chiuppeto, Mario del Tufo.  Each school had a faculty of five masters chosen by the director.4  Then in 1856 another ordinance increased the number to include schools at Naples and Gaeta.  And by 1868 military fencing schools were also established at Modena, Parma, and Milan under the direction, respectively, of Cesare Enrichetti, Alessandrino Gioberti, and Giuseppe Radaelli.  Finally, in 1884, after bitter rivalry between north and south produced by nationalism and the question of foreign influence, a unified system of military fencing instruction was created, using the southern method of teaching and textbook of the young fencing master of the Accademia Nazionale di Scherma in Naples (henceforth Accademia), Masaniello Parise.  The northern military fencing schools were closed, and Parise was named director of the new Scuola Magistrale Militare di Scherma in Rome (henceforth Scuola Magistrale).

Despite differences of opinion among nineteenth-century French fencing masters regarding some technical matters, the French fencing community was spared the kind of acrimony that tore apart its Italian neighbors.  French fencing had long been purged of Italian influence and was thoroughly national.  With publication of the Manuel d’escrime by the Ministry of War in 1877 fencing instruction was standardized in the French army, and, in general, throughout the entire country.  The Manuel d’escrime served as the precursor of the Règlement of 1908, and provided the theoretical foundation for modern French fencing.

By 1914 graduates of the Scuola Magistrale were teaching virtually everywhere in Italy and abroad, among them, Vittorio Tagliapietra at Trieste, Italo Santelli at Budapest, Ettore Schiavoni at Berlin, Romolo Davoli at Milan, Orlando Cristino in Mexico, Arturo Gazzera at Frankfurt, Beniamino Alesiano at Graz, Giovanni Franceschinis at Vienna, Alfonso Mormile at Genova, Edoardo Lupi Bonora at Saint Petersburg, Luigi Colombetti at Turin, Giulio Flauto at Naples, and Nicola Revello in Uruguay.

The influence of the Italian and French military masters schools and academies of arms was paramount in the United States.  Louis Rondelle, a graduate of the French military masters school at Joinville-le-Pont, and author of Foil and Sabre:  A Grammar of Fencing (Boston, 1892), taught in New York and Boston.  He voiced concern over the need for a fencing masters school in this country.  And Generoso Pavese, a graduate of the Scuola Magistrale, was author of Foil and Sabre Fencing (Baltimore, 1905) and gave fencing instruction in Baltimore.  In 1915 the Amateur Fencers League of America (now the USFA) issued and endorsed the French military Règlement of 1908 (Paris, 1914), which was edited and translated by R. Tilmont, G. Breed, and W. O’Connor, as Fencing, Foil, Epee, Sabre, Theory, Method, and Regulations.  This made French fencing theory the foundation for American fencing rules, and the French school the officially-accepted guide for fencing technique.

Still, the presence in the United States, prior to World War II, of Italian fencing masters, who were directly or indirectly products of the Scuola Magistrale, or the Accademia, had a significant effect on the nature of fencing instruction in this country.  Besides Pavese at Baltimore, there was Leonardo Terrone, a graduate of the Scuola Magistrale, who was author of Right and Left Handed Fencing (New York, 1959) and taught fencing in Philadelphia.  And in New York, during the 1930s, three Italian fencing masters played prominent roles in developing competitive fencers:  Giorgio Santelli, son of Italo Santelli; Antonino Greco, who received his fencing master’s diploma from the Accademia in 1924; and Aldo Nadi, author of On Fencing (New York 1943), who held an honorary diploma from the Accademia, and whose father, Giuseppe (Beppe) Nadi, was awarded his fencing master’s diploma by the Accademia in 1900.

The two textbooks developed for use in the military fencing schools of Italy and France, Masaniello Parise’s Trattato teorico pratico della scherma di spada e sciabola (Roma, 1884) and the Règlement of 1908, became the “Bibles” of contemporary fencing instruction.  Virtually every book on fencing that was written after these volumes was based on their material.  This standardization of theory and practice in written form meant that in certification of fencing teachers every level of examination could be prepared for employing the same materials, and that the commission members would be in accord on whether or not their questions and requirements in demonstration had been met by the candidate.  Examinations conducted without such material can end in confusion and chaos, as was the case in a prévot-level examination sponsored by the United States Fencing Coaches Association in the early 1980s, when a candidate was asked to define fencing measure, and he responded correctly with the commonly-accepted definition, that there are three measures:  out of distance, correct distance, and close distance.  Then a member of the commission asked the candidate to distinguish between fencing measure and fencing distance.  The candidate was completely baffled because in Italian and French fencing terminology the two words mean the same thing.  However, from the discussion that followed, it was clearly evident that the commission member had a highly personal view regarding definition of these terms.

With a list of questions based on the text, differences of opinion and confusions are easily avoided.  In his fifth or 1904 edition Parise included such a list of questions, which continue to be used in the examinations of the Accademia to the present day.  On p. 343 of his book Parise begins with question 1. What does fencing consist of, what is the nomenclature of the foil, how is it gripped, and how does one know that it is correctly balanced?  Then he notes the numbers of the paragraphs in the text where the answers can be found, and he follows this principle with all the following questions.  Question 2. How many and what are the hand positions, and what is the scope of the valid target of the fencer, and how is the target divided?  Question 3. When does one say that the foil is in the line of offense, what is the line of direction, how does one stand in first position, what is the salute and how is it executed?  Question 4. What is the guard, what purpose does it serve, what is the best exercise for learning to go on guard, and how does one return to the position of rest?  Question 5. What is measure, what is [normal or lunging] measure, advancing [out of distance] measure, and close measure, and what is the practical way to learn these?  Question 6. How many and what are the invitations?  Question 7. What is a straight thrust and how is it executed?

The French equivalent list of questions based on the Règlement of 1908, and the revised edition of 1936, was compiled in the second half of the twentieth century by Maîtres Revenu and Leblond for the Académie d’Armes de France.  Question 1. What is the guard?  And the answer follows each question.  Question 2. What is the engagement?  How many engagements are there?  What is the change of engagement?  What is the double engagement?  Question 3. What is the measure?  4. What are the lines in fencing?  Question 5. What is the attack?  Question 6. How many simple attacks are there?  Name them.

Not surprisingly, in comparing the two lists of questions, it is evident that essentially the same fencing elements are covered in the early stages of instruction by both Italian and the French fencing masters.  Only the order of presenting the material differs a little, yet it is possible that an Italian and a French candidate could, with modest study, pass one another’s written and oral examinations on fencing theory.  They would have to make accommodation for such differences as the definition of an engagement.

Where Masters are Made: The Castel Nuovo at the time of Dr. Gaugler's study

Fencing theory does not undergo constant change, as some would have us believe, and who in modern competitive fencing reinvent or alter basic elements, such as the interpretation of right-of-way, to justify incorrect practices that would be fatal with edged weapons, like bent-arm attacks, foot motion before hand movement, and pulling the arm back to thrust.  For as long as fencing theory is derived from dueling practice, it is firmly rooted in the principle to hit and not be hit.  And this principle, based on self-preservation, underlies the design of the curriculum in the fencing masters schools and academies of Italy and France, where certification and the title “fencing master” can be earned only after completion of a lengthy program of study and rigorous examinations terminating in the award of a state-sanctioned diploma.


1   M. Parise, Trattato di scherma di spada e sciabola (Roma, 1884) pp. 155-187; F. Masiello, La scherma italiana di spada e di sciabola (Firenze, 1887) pp. 303-357, 473-567; G. Pessina e U. Pignotti, Il fioretto (Roma, 1970) pp. 139-177; W. Gaugler, The Science of Fencing (Bangor, 2004) pp. 135-177.

2   Gaugler, supra, pp. 138-139.

3   K. Wassmannsdorff, Sechs Fechtschulen (Heidelberg, 1870), pp. 4-5.  According to Wassmannsdorff, the oldest Meisterbuch or Master Book mentioning the Guild of Saint Marcus is in the City Archive of Frankfurt.

4   E. de Simone, La Scuola Magistrale Militare di Scherma (Roma, 1921) pp. 14-17.

5   The Accademia Nazionale di Scherma in Naples was founded in 1861 by Giacomo Massei, Carlo Cinque, and Annibale Parise, Masaniello Parise’s uncle.  And in 1880, by Royal Decree, the Accademia was given authority to confer, after a rigorous theoretical and practical examination, the diploma of fencing master (Maestro di Scherma).  The Accademia is, in fact, the civilian counterpart of the Scuola Magistrale, uses the same textbook, and follows essentially the same examination procedure.

6   Many of the difficulties that confront directors (referees) in awarding touches today, irrespective of the poor fencing technique commonly encountered, can still be resolved through knowledge of fencing theory.  For example, recently, in the junior championships of a major European fencing nation, the following occurred:  Both fencers were on guard in third (French sixte), that is to say, the invitation in third, exposing the inside high line, and out of distance.  Fencer A advanced, that is, took a step forward, simultaneously executing a simple beat in fourth (French quarte) followed by a straight thrust with a lunge, and scored a hit.  Fencer B also performed a straight thrust and touched valid target area.  The director awarded the hit to Fencer B on grounds that Fencer A had executed the beat with the weak of the blade against the strong of Fencer B’s steel, and therefore Fencer B’s action was to be regarded as a parry and riposte.  But is this correct?

Fencing theory provides a model of the proper sequence of events (Gaugler [supra n. 1] pp. 166-167), and tells us that a straight thrust following the beat in fourth can be directed to the inside high line, and may be opposed with parries of fourth or counter of third (counter of sixte), succeeded after the parry of fourth by ripostes to the inside high line (detached or contact) or outside low line (flanconade in fourth), or the parry of counter of third by ripostes to the low line (detached) or outside high line (contact).  Moreover, the first movement of the attack can be opposed with the counterattack by disengagement in time to the outside high line, and the second motion of the attack, with the counterattack by time thrust or inquartata.

Now, if we compare what happened in the practical example above with what we know from fencing theory, it is clear that Fencer B did not execute the required parries followed by ripostes or counterattacks that could have prevented Fencer A from scoring a touch.  And if Fencer B’s action was intended to be a time thrust, it was faulty, for the line was left open, and he was hit (Gaugler [supra n. 1] p. 130).  The director made an error in his judgment!

It can be further surmised that both Fencers A and B, in the above example, were ill prepared, and it is more than probable that they were permitted, or perhaps even encouraged, to compete too soon, for here it is important to recall Marozzo’s admonition (Libro primo, Cap. 4, p. 4) in the sixteenth century against allowing beginners to fence with others outside the presence of the master because they will develop bad habits, which will require more work to correct (…potrebbono pigliare qualche costumi tristi, & haresti poi piu fatica ad emendarli.).  And in the nineteenth century L-J. Lafaugère, Traité de l’art de faire des armes (Paris, 1825) p. 340, attributed the large number of poor fencers of his time to being permitted by their masters to engage in combat too soon (Les maîtres laissant faire, en général, trop tôt assaut à leurs élèves….).

One response to “Teaching Fencing: Curriculum and Diploma

  1. Hello,
    I found your article very insightful. I am currently teaching historical fencing and it is quite difficult to find the best way curriculum.

    Keep it up !

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