Labat, in the preface to his book, L’art en fait d’armes, observes that many masters divide the blade into three equal parts: the strong, the weak, and the middle; and that others divide it into four equal parts: the strong, the semi-strong, the semi-weak, and the weak. He, however, prefers to speak only of two parts: the strong and the weak. Similar divisions of the blade can be found in 16th- and early 17th-century Italian fencing literature. Giacomo Grassi, for instance, in his Ragione di addoprar sicuramente l’arme, published at Venice in 1570, cites four parts. Fabris, in his treatise published thirty-six years later, also mentions four parts, and adds that half of the blade is used for offense, and the other half for defense. In other words, the portion of the blade from the point to the middle is employed offensively, while the portion from the middle to the guard is used defensively. Capo Ferro divides the blade in three parts, but notes that there are some who divide it into four parts, a practice which, in his estimation, has little utility.
All actions involving blade contact, from beats to parries, are, of course, dependent upon the relationship of the strong to the weak. In the Italian school engagements are made from lunging distance with the strong against the weak, and from out of distance with the medium against the weak. The glide, flanconade in fourth, transport, envelopment, and expulsion -respectively, coule, croise, liement, enveloppement, and froissement-cannot be properly executed unless the opposing steel is dominated. Each of these movements begins from engagement; and if the engagement is not correct, that is to say, strong or medium against weak, then the action on the blade is apt to fail.
Labat is clearly sensitive to the divisions of the blade and lists actions on the blade –batteinens, croisemens, liemens, and fouetemens– yet he shows fencers in plate 1 engaged middle to middle, and on page 90 calls the engagement of the garde mediocre "the most beautiful, the most useful, and the best." Also of great interest is the fact that the fencers in the illustrations are armed with practice weapons that do not have a crossbar and ricasso; they are shown holding a straight-handled foil, with a curious, crown-shaped guard, that appears to be the ancestor of the modern French weapon. Labat, in his text, uses interchangeably the terms "sword" or epee, and "foil" or fleuret.
While engagement of middle to middle becomes a distinguishing feature of the French school, there seem to have been some exceptions in the early years, for example, La Boessiere; on page 44 of his treatise he has the pupil engage strong against weak. But the method he describes dates to the 18th century; it is the system his father employed. By the end of the l9th century, however, French masters appear to be unanimous in recommending engagements of middle against middle. Prevost, on page 55 of his book, defines the engagement as a meeting of the swords. Prevost’s contemporary, Georges Robert, in his work, La science des armes, published at Paris in 1900, includes illustrations on pages 39 to 45 showing engagements in all lines made with the middle against the middle; and in his description of the engagements he states that the point should be pressed lightly against the opposing steel.
Two factors, in all probability, led to the change in the position of engagement from the traditional strong against weak to the middle against middle: 1) the sword arm eventually was more withdrawn in the French school; and 2) the straight-handled practice weapon was not well suited for actions on the blade. By drawing the armed hand back, the swordsman assumed a defensive, rather than an offensive, posture; and with both fencers adopting this guard position, engagement of strong against weak would result in uncomfortably close fencing distance.
Between the 17th and l9th centuries, however, the sword arm in the guard position was well extended in both the French and Italian schools. For example, Labat, on page 10, observes: "the arm must be neither fully extended, nor completely bent; rather it should be equally between the two "He echoes Fabris, who earlier in the 17th century, wrote: "the arm must not be fully extended, but rather more extended than withdrawn, and with the sword in line" The well extended sword arm with point in line reflects the duellist’s concern with threatening the adversary and keeping him at a safe distance. French masters still advocated such a guard position at the beginning of the l9th century, as can be seen in the first plate of La Boessiere’s treatise on fencing. But by the end of that century the more flexed arm position, now associated with the French school, prevailed, as can be seen in Prevost’s work. In his description of the guard on page 39 he states that the sword arm must be bent, with the elbow close to the body.
Apart from differences in hand positions, engagement, and weapon grip, Labat’s method cannot easily be distinguished from that of the Italian school. Terms that have changed or disappeared from modern French fencing language, can still be found in Italian fencing terminology, and in Labat’s work. His flanconade is the Italian fianconata esterna; his reprise or coup redouble is the Italian ripresa di attacco or secondo colpo; and his volter le corps or quarter is the Italian inquartata. He also speaks of the double-feinte and the feintes en desordre, using the terms as they are employed by the Italians today: doppia finta and disordinata. And he lists in the same order, as the Italians, the three basic elements of fencing: time, velocity, and measure.
The words doppia finta and disordinata require further comment. In the doppia finta the first blade motion of a three movement attack gives the action its name: thus, a double feint direct means a feint direct followed by a feint by disengagement and a disengagement; and a double feint by disengagement signifies two feints by disengagement succeeded by a disengagement, an action also known as a one-two-three. The term disordinata refers to three or more feints designed to throw the adversary into a state of confusion.
What is obvious from this comparison of French and Italian fencing material is the fact that the French, very logically, built upon the existing, successful method of swordplay devised by the Italian masters. By the time Labat published his treatise the Italian system of instruction had been transformed into a French national school. French masters, during the course of the 17th century, had succeeded in distinguishing their school from the Italian school by changing the practice weapon grip, and by shifting emphasis from offense to defense, and from actions on the blade to actions performed with absence of blade.
The Italian school stresses offense. Fabris, for instance, says that the adversary is placed at a disadvantage when he is forced to parry. Poggio Vannucchi, in his book, I fondamenti della scherma italiana, published in Bologna at the end of the l9th century, quotes his teacher, Giuseppe Radaelli, as saying, "the parry does not exist." What Radaelli meant, of course, was that if the attack was properly timed, with the necessary speed, and in correct fencing distance, that it could not be parried.
The change in practice weapon type from the rapier-style grip, employed by both the Italian school and the older generation of French masters, to the straight-handled grip was a principal factor in the evolution of the French school. Labat’s crown-shaped guard was replaced, in the 18th century, by a figure-eight shaped guard, such as the one shown in the illustrations for Guillaume Danet’s, L’art des armes, published at Paris in 1766. This offered little protection to the hand, so that a large, padded glove was necessary. Cordelois is shown wearing such a glove in the frontispiece to his book, Lecons d’armes, published at Paris in 1862. With the straight-handled grip covering the entire blade, and the thick, stuffed glove protecting the fingers, there could have been little sensitivity to blade contact. This would, naturally, inhibit the use of actions on the blade, such as the feint by coule or the froissement, and promote movements that freed the blade, like the feints by disengagement and cut-over. Removal of the crossbar, and free movement of the grip, would facilitate actions such as the cut-over and ceding parry Labat calls "tierce obeyssant." With free movement of the pommel, the point of the weapon could be lifted easily for the cut-over, or dropped for the ceding parry of prime.
In contrast, the Italian school continued to employ as a practice weapon a modified rapier-style foil with a bell guard, crossbar and ricasso The armed hand seems to have been covered with an ordinary glove, and the weapon tied to the wrist, with movement of the pommel restricted, as indicated by Rosaroll Scorza and Pietro Grisetti in their book, La scienza della scherma, published at Milan in 1803. The Neapolitan system of fencing that Scroza and Grisetti practiced was, in fact, based on 16th- and 17th-century Italian rapier play; it stressed use of simple movements, actions on the blade, and counterattacks. The use of ceding parries which carried the opposing steel to the low line, such as Labat’s parry of tierce obeyssant, was discouraged, since these would bring the hostile point dangerously close to the legs. Tierce obeyssant, known to the Italian school as ceduta di prima, was confined to sabre fencing.
For the Italian school blade contact was of the utmost importance. As long as the weapons touched, the adversary’s movements-no matter how subtle-were transmitted along the blade to the ricasso, and from the ricasso, to the fingers. The moment the opponent lost control of fencing measure and permitted his blade to be dominated, he was exposed to an action on the blade.
Feints, of course, made the fencer vulnerable to a counterattack. Under the heading, "Of the vanity of feints," Capo Ferro writes: "while he feints, I thrust." In other words, Capo Ferro opposes the compound attack with a counterattack, or what modern French fencers would call an attack on the preparation. Here, there is a significant difference in terminology between the French and Italian schools. From the Italian point of view the offensive action executed in opposition to a compound attack is a counterattack; in other words, the first fencer to move is the attacker, and the second, the counterattacker.
The abandonment of the older numerical system of hand positions by the French, and renumbering of parries also became distinguishing features between the two schools. In a work as recent as Giorgio Pessina’s and Ugo Pignotti’s, ll fioretto, published at Rome in 1970, the classic hand positions and old numbering of parries can still be found. The four parries are designated prima, or mezzocerchio, seconda, terza, and quarta, with hand positions, respectively, in third in fourth, second or fourth, second in third or fourth, and third in fourth. The hand may be held in supination in all fouriarries, or in pronation in the two outside parries. Like the French, the Italians today favor parrying all lines with the hand in supination.
In conclusion, except for the change in weapon grip and mode of engagement, Labat’s text could easily be confused with an Italian work of the same time period. His pedagogical method, range of actions, and fencing terminology resemble more closely the modern Italian than the modern French school. The shift to a straight-handled practice weapon, and the effect this had on the choice of actions and the tactical approach, represents, in my estimation, the most significant factor in the separation of the two schools. In abandoning the rapier grip, Labat and his successors established a school of fencing that relied more upon absence of blade than upon blade contact, and encouraged use of the cut-over. But while differing in details such as weapon grip, mode of engagement, and names of parries, the French school, nevertheless, duplicates the essential features of its Italian parent. Thus it may be inferred from the French example that the establishment of a new school of fencing can only be effected through modification of an existing system, and that the end product will still closely resemble its antecedent. Finally, it should be observed that language plays a primary role in the creation of a national identity: it is no small coincidence, in my opinion, that the appearance of French fencing terminology and the birth of the French school coincide.