"Et l'oggetto di questa scienza altro non è che il riparare et il ferire . . . le quali non potrà alcuno sapere se prima non havrà la cognitione dè tempi e delle misure . . . " [ . . . and the goal of this science is nothing else but to parry and to wound . . . Things nobody can perform unless they are aware of times and measures . . . ]
—Nicoletto Giganti, 1606
It's easy today to have a very distorted view of what fencing was at the time of the Ring of Fire. Real fencing is not Errol Flynn or the Three Musketeers. Hollywood swashbuckling movies set in the early modern era feature unrealistic flamboyant fencing. The only other fencing moderns see is lightning-fast Olympic fencing. Both of these are far different from the fencing taught in the 1630s in hundreds of academies throughout Europe.
The slow rate of fire and the poor accuracy of firearms made fencing the most common form of self-defense. And as any form of self-defense it was quick, lethal, and, most of the time, brutal.
Dueling and the use of the sword are as old as human civilization. During the period from the end of the Middle Ages until the Ring of Fire, the art of sword fighting changed radically. Those changes set the foundations of fencing as we know it now. This article will focus on Europe during that period.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the use of plate mail transformed fencing into something very technical. The first known treatise was written in 1295, in Germany. This manuscript, called I33, codifies a form of combat with sword and buckler. During this time fencers developed the thrust with a long sword. Its purpose was to find openings in a foe's armor. This attack became a well-known technique amongst fighters. The use of the two-handed sword, with a complex system based on many different guards, began a codification of the techniques used, the birth of the first styles and what is considered the first form of true fencing. General military sword fighting was still based mostly on strength. Cutting blows, as opposed to the thrusts and lunges, were still used in combination with grappling techniques to knock down an adversary who was well protected by plate armor.
A radical change happened once the invention and the development of firearms greatly reduced the effectiveness of armor. Because firearms began to appear on the battlefield during the sixteenth century, the use of a complete plate armor was limited mostly to heavy cavalry in tournaments and in battle. After 1490, duels were fought mainly afoot and with much lighter weaponry.
The rise of the thrust, and the decline of the cutting stroke in fencing, began a demand for different swords. Sword making answered this call for lighter weapons, and swords became longer, thinner, and more suitable for lunges. The broadsword became a sidesword easy to carry all the time. Typical Renaissance sword fighting required the use of sword and a small target shield or sword and dagger. Even the use of a target shield faded during the sixteenth century, giving way to fighting with sword and dagger. This last style is considered more effective, as a dagger can be used as a defense, and it can become a terrible offensive weapon in close combat.
Another innovation of this period was the growing use of the sword alone. This was permitted by the development of fencing techniques that favored the use of the blade both for defense and offense. In the second half of the sixteenth century, numerous fencing treatises were printed and the number of wards (ten or sixteen) dropped to the four standard wards based on the different hand positions. The wards (or guards) are the basic fighting stances from which any attack and defense develop. The Pallas Armata, a fencing treatise of 1639, describes the different wards:
There are but four guards according to the four ways thou canst turn thy hand, viz. Prime, Secunde, Tertz, and Quarte.
"The Prime is when thou holdest thy Rapier in such a manner that the outside side of thy hand doth look towards thy left side out, and the inside of thy hand look towards thy right side out. This is subdivided into a straight Prime, when thy point looketh straight forwards, and into a hanging Prime, when thy point doth look towards the ground.
The Secunde is, when thou holdest thy Rapier in such a sort that the outside of thy hand looketh upwards, and the inside of thy hand towards the ground. This is likewise subdivided into a straight Secunde when thy point looketh straight forwards; into a handing Secunde, when thy point looketh downwards towards the ground, and finally into the middle Secunde, when thou holdest thy Rapier with a Secunde and a bowed arm, so that the point of thy Rapier looks sheer out towards thy left side.