John Turner sent me a link to this short article in Slate‘s “The Vault” column, discussing the mathematical side of fencing:
Girard Thibault’s Académie de l’Espée (1628) puts the art of wielding the sword on mathematical foundations. For Thibault, a Dutch fencing master from the early seventeenth century, geometrical rules determined each and every aspect of fencing. For example, the length of your rapier’s blade should never exceed the distance between your feet and the navel, and your movements in a fight should always be along the lines of a circle whose diameter is equal to your height.
The rest of his manual, geared towards gentlemanly readers who took up fencing as a noble sport, is filled with similar geometrical arguments about the choreography of swordsmanship. Thibault’s work belongs to the same tradition that produced Leonardo’s renowned Vitruvian Man.
“Human proportions and their relationship to swordsmanship.” Engraving by J. Gelle. By Girard Thibault. (Click to see full-sized image.)
H/T to Tim Harford for the link.
Peter Saltsman visits Toronto’s Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts (AEMMA) and finds that there’s not much “play” when you’re just starting to learn how to wield a sword:
I was hoping this courageous group of historians and hobbyists could teach me to fight like they do in movies such as Robin Hood, Macbeth or the new Pillars of the Earth series. In the movies, it looks so easy. The sword fights I know are the perfect harmony of choreographed bravado, hyperbolic grunting and dramatic pauses for someone to say “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
To the disappointment of my eight-year-old self, real medieval combat is nothing like that.
“They’re not really trying to hit each other,” says Cal Rekuta, a Senior Free Scholar at AEMMA, of cinematic battles. “Stage fighting is the art of looking dangerous. We’re actually studying how it was dangerous.”
I was in over my head. When a man dressed in a full suit of chain-mail armour — armour he weaved himself — talks about danger, he probably means it.
I visited AEMMA once, several years ago. It was quite an enjoyable experience, but I’m more interested in later-period swordwork than most of their membership at that time.
As I expected, the larger turnout of fencers yesterday prevented me from repeating as high a finish as the last two tournaments, but there’s more happening today. The morning tournament was a double-elimination, but the afternoon was a much briefer single-elimination. At least with double-elimination, you can recover from a mistake (theoretically).
There’s a big SCA event literally down the street from us today, so I’m off to do some rapier fencing. The last two tournaments I entered went very well for me (first place and second place), even though they were more than a year apart. I doubt I’ll do so well today: lots more competition including folks I’ve never fought before. Still, it should be a lot of fun.
I’m away from the computer, competing in an SCA rapier tournament near Peterborough, Ontario. Lots of interesting sites to visit over in the right-hand column.
Update: You know, it would have helped if I’d actually published this entry before heading off this morning. I’m now back, bruised yet unbowed, happy in my second-place finish in the tournament. Last time I competed there (before injuring my shoulder and having to take a few years off), I won the tournament. This time, with more fencers taking part, I still managed to claim second. That’s pretty good after such a long lay-off from competition. I’m more than satisfied.