I think this reveals a profound lack of knowledge and experience about what a fencing master actually did historically or does today. There is a bit too much Hollywood baggage in this discussion for my taste because there is nothing particularly glorious or kingly about running a fencing school which is what the title really means. Masters are not little old bearded men trashing ninjas by the hundreds. In fact masters often sacrifice their own competitive edge because they spend the larger portion of their time teaching. (The really good competitive artists in my experience are the younger provosts.)
I am not this guy.
In the classical tradition a master would run the school with a few provosts and a collection of instructors to assist with the workload. It is simply how you run a school and there is nothing weird or supernatural about it. If you are running your own school, you are doing the work of a fencing master.
There will be good fencing masters and bad ones. Fencing masters can and will hiss at each other like cats across the backyard fence just like any other two people enthusiastic about a particular field. Some masters will be lifelong friends and I’ve found that extremely rewarding. Helping guide Kevin Murakoshi through the process of his multiple examinations gave me a great sense of the circular nature of life and teaching. I have ensured that my work doesn’t end with me and I’ve empowered another teacher to go out into the world and make something good.
Now what you should understand is that I know a lot of masters working in the community but I only know a few people who are certified. I think that is a damn shame. I also find the process of examination and certification extremely powerful and rewarding so I’m strongly in favor of that experience for any teacher who runs a school. With that in mind I think schools should consider certifying masters and get beyond the mumbo-jumbo of Hollywood nonsense and restore the title to the work-a-day role that it really occupies which is something akin to a head football coach at your local high-school. Different certifications will produce different levels of talent and I’m comfortable with that provided that the process is public and verifiable.
This is me getting hit with a foil.
This is me getting hit with a rapier.
This is me being hit and disarmed at the same time. (I obviously suck at my job,)
(And, this is me being hit over and over again without ever getting a shot in.)
I earned my certification by being hit thousands upon thousands of times by students. Most fighters won’t know the difference between an in-time cue or an on-command cue. Amongst fencing teachers we can have thirty minute discussions and arguments on how best to cue a student’s attack. Fighting put me on the path to being a teacher but it wasn’t what was required for me to certify. Engendering success in the people around me so that they meet their goals is more important to me than my personal win-loss ratio. Building a historical swordplay community is the real prize that I keep my eyes on.
In order for the community to provide a healthy second and third generation we need lots of schools to experiment with lots of ways of certifying the next generation. That’s dynamic. It has conflicts and feedback and tension and a drive to compete with your sister schools. That is healthy.
In short, don’t panic… “master” is just a normal teaching credential. The USFCA certification is not my thing but I think certifying programs are where the community needs to go generally as we mature. I look forward to the HEMA Alliance program, and the USFCA program (conditional on Ken’s input), and perhaps other programs as well. This gives me a great deal of comfort to know that we’re creating a self-sustaining life-cycle for the art. We need teachers and I want them all to be good. They won’t all be good but I can try to put my finger on the scales when I can to help tip the balance towards quality.
Maestro Mondschein holds a PhD in medieval history and is a Fulbright scholar which places him within the ranks of the scholastic elite.
He is a classically trained fencer with a ready knowledge of western fighting theory. In this field, he has taken multiple public examinations from an accrediting fencing body which provides him knowledge and experience necessary to examine instructors.
He is one of the most prolific modern authors for historical martial arts including two translations of primary sources. These works are enriched both by his academic expertise but also grounded in his classical tradition. This combination provides a modern reader with immediate access to the historical material.
His knowledge is broad. Maestro Mondschein is equally at home in full harness on horseback as he is on the classical strip. With academic and applied knowledge both broad and deep he embodies a Carrancine spirit of excellence within our community.
It is my opinion that through some miracle of blind luck, the USFCA chose perhaps the most qualified master to begin their program for historical instructor certification. I personally had reservations about the USFCA’s historical instructor certification program but at his core Ken is one of us and he understands what this community is about. No process for certification will be perfect but it gives me a great deal of reassurance to know that he is part of this project. When I think on my concerns, each one is addressed by, “Ken, will fix this.”
My congratulations to Maestro Mondschein for he well deserves this. Likewise my congratulations to the USFCA; I don’t think they yet fully realize the potential of the master they have chosen to start their program but I heartily approve. I don’t expect the USFCA to be the only program to certify instructors but I expect it will be a good one with Maestro Mondschein doing the work.
What is an Atajo? To understand the Atajo it is useful to understand the primary causes that make it work.
I’m intentionally going to present this from the perspective of a Pachequista (a follower of don Luis Pacheco). Pacheco literally defined the fencing master’s examination in Spain so in this regard his work is “canonical”.
The Advantage of Downward Pressure
If I extend my arm out toward you with the palm up and you press down while I resist you will probably be able to lower my arm. The Spanish call this the superior nature of the natural movement (descending) versus the violent movement (rising). Your own body also provides an advantage when you use your shoulder and body to assist in the motion to increase the downward force.
Principle: If all other factors are equal a downward force will defeat an upwards resistance.
When two equal adversaries resist each other, gravity lends a hand.
The Advantage of Degrees of Strength
I have already written an article about blade mechanics, but every swordsman worth his or her salt should already know that in contact between two weapons, the swordsman with superior degrees of strength in the engagement has an advantage of power both offensively and defensively.
Principle: When two swords oppose each other in an engagement, the weapon with greater degrees of strength is stronger and has an advantage.
Carranza's degrees of strength showing higher values as stronger.
For more on strength in engagements consider this article:
When two adversaries act against each other the swordsman who can finish execution sooner has an advantage in time. The Spanish use Movements as a tool for understanding time. When the adversary’s attack requires three movements, he can be defeated by a defense or counteroffense which uses a single movement. In addition an engagement that completely closes a line can limit the adversary’s offensive options to ensure that the time advantage is maintained.
Principle: A defensive action that requires a single movement can defeat an offensive action with more movements.
When the adversary attempts to strike with a circular reverse (3 movements) the defender answers with a thrust (1 movement). (Ettenhard Plate 11)
Principle: An engagement which prevents the adversary from attacking in a single motion provides a defensive advantage.
By closing the line, he forces the adversary into a time disadvantage. (Ettenhard Plate 15)
For more on Spanish Movements consider this article:
The Spanish fencer starts with the arm extended and the weapon pointed at the adversary along the most direct path to the target. Knowing that it is easier to push downward then to resist upward, I can use this principle to deny my adversary the shortest path to my body by pushing his blade down. Not only do I increase the distance he must travel to strike my body, I also ensure that my offensive path is shorter and closer to the target.
Principle: By starting with the arm extended along the shortest path to the adversary and then deviating the adversary’s weapon downward you ensure your own path to the target is shorter.
Note: Deviating the opposing steel laterally would be called a desvioor a deflection.
The advantage of the shorter path (Ettenhard Plate 9)
The Spanish Atajo unites all of these ideas into a single defensive action which can protect the swordsman while simultaneously providing opportunities and the place from which to strike with safety. Offensively, the atajo can be used to prepare a safe attack that controls the adversary’s weapon. (We would call this preparatory action “dispositive“ and the attack “executive“.)
Pacheco in New Science p.365 (1632)
“Atajo, according to our definition, is when one of the weapons is placed over the other (not in any of its extremes nor with any of its extremes) and with equal or some degree more of strength subjects it and makes it so that the technique that can be formed must be done with more movements and the participation of more angles than those that its simple nature requires.”
~Translated by Mary Curtis
Pacheco in New Science p.368 (1632)
“Arriving, then, to the perfect formation of the atajo, it should necessarily consist of three movements: violent, offline lateral and natural. With the first the sword that should subject is placed on a superior plane to the other, with the second it is placed transversal over it, and with the last it subjects it:”
~Translated by Mary Curtis
Ettenhard in his Compendium and Foundations… p.154-155 (1675)
“I am very safely confident that one will have recognized with enough satisfaction that the Atajo causes its effects by means of a superior graduation and of the superior power of the Natural Movement and also that one will concede to me that if it were possible to beat and destroy these two causes, we would see dispelled the end of such superior effects…”
~Translated by Mary Curtis
Eric places an Atajo over Kevin's sword. (Click for larger image)
The Defining Elements of Atajo
Between Pacheco and Ettenhard we find these three items essential in placing Atajo:
Subjection with equal or greater degrees of strength.
The subjection is placed from above.
The subjected line is closed so that an adversary cannot strike with a single movement.
When Lorenz de Rada writes later, he adapts the atajo so that you initially seek the subjection from above and if you don’t find it or feel that the adversary is weak in the engagement you immediately spiral towards the opposing steel and closing the opposite line from below. Compare this to the classical transports of 3rd and 4th from high to low or the corresponding half-circular parries from high to low.
This information tells us that Pacheco’s Atajo should start by seeking the superior line with greater degrees of strength in the weapon. The defensive action subjects downward to lengthen the adversary’s path to the target while ensuring your own path is shorter. It might be tempting to equate Atajo with classical engagements but this violates the primary causes of Atajo. Likewise, by definition two swordsmen cannot both have an Atajo simultaneously.
That we are informed that in the said cities, villages, and places some swords, verdugos and estocs are carried of more than six and seven and eight palms and from there above in length, from which cause many inconveniences and deaths of men have resulted and continue to result, and wanting to provide a remedy to this, discussed in our council and with us consulted, it was agreed that we should order this our letter to be issued for you for the stated reason, and we considered it as good. Because of this, we order and command that now and from here forward, after fifteen days counted from the day of the publication of this our letter, no one of whatever quality and condition that he might be should dare to carry nor will carry the said swords, verdugos nor estocs of greater than five fourths of vara of blade in length, under penalty that he who carries it falls and incurs for the first time in penalty of ten ducats and ten days in jail and loss of that estoc, verdugo, or sword, and for the second the penalty is doubled and one year of exile from the city, village, or place where he is taken and was neighbor…
Pacheco de Narváez’s Preference on Blade Length
Pacheco de Narvaez
Later, Luis Pacheco de Narváez directly cites Philip’s law in his books.
Pacheco de Narváez New Science p. 250 (translated by Mary Curtis) tells us this:
From these and other injuries our King and Lord Philip, Second in name and First in religion and prudence (whose happy memory in these glorious attributes will live in the most extended posterity of men), wanted to free them, justly and compassionately, with paternal love prohibiting under precept and force of law that any of his vassals carry sword, verdugo or estoc, of more blade than five fourths of vara, superior reason he achieved for this establishment, and if it were as justifiable for us to investigate it, as the obligation of obeying it, we would dare to say, that knowing for the organization, symmetry, and composure of the man (leaving the extremes of high and low) that his common stature is two varas in length, like he also has them from the extreme of one hand to the other, the arms open, and that in this all natural is in potential and diffuse action the strength of the parts that constitute him, unless the ones to the others their similar ones, they can communicate what they receive, and that from the left shoulder to the extremity of the right hand there are five fourths, he wanted for universal good that the swords were of this length, knowing that if they exceeded this, it would not be powerful the vigor sent to move them with the suitable quickness; and thus this very wise Prince looked for a proportion so proportionate that one will not find another more proportionate.
In the seventeenth century, Pacheco de Narváez echoes the sentiments of Philip II in recommending a blade no more than 5/4 varas.
Pacheco de Narvaez’s Opinions on Longer Blades
Knowing that Pacheco de Narváez advocates a blade no longer than 5/4 vara, does he consider it important? If you use a longer weapon against someone using a proper sword, it offends Pacheco de Narváez, and he has some harsh things to say.
Pacehco de Narváez’s New Science p.248-249 (translated by Mary Curtis)
The affection of our desire will remain offended and with just reason upset if we lose the opportunity of attempting the inconvenient reform of an ancient error introduced in men, about whom without exceeding the limits of modesty one can speak with all contempt, and in others, that all the terms that human courtesy have discovered do not equal its quality and merits. This is the exorbitant excess in the quantity and length of the swords, so much that changing the gender from feminine to masculine, requires it to be called estoc, or with a word of less nobility verdugo, from the problems that are offered, some are related to and offend the reputation and others offer manifest dangers. Firstly, it is known that no one ever spoke with venerable respect nor did the valor remain very esteemed of he who with advantageous weapons attacked his opponent in a forewarned or casual fight. From the fifth generation passes his memory and easy cause provokes, so that in absence or present they give him in the face with the ugliness of this injury. The greatest friend fails to rise in his defense and with honorable respects is ashamed to promote his credit. He who is not a friend speaks with indignity and discourtesy, and the neutral person is inclined toward kindness and compassion for he who suffered with the unequal instrument, without placing the misfortune of the case to the charge of not knowing. If the cause is deduced to judgment, the right makes the guilt worse and with just indignation increases the sentence and punishment, and in taking this into account, competing with time and forgetfulness endures this new word – fraud, disparaging insult with which the people discredit the one who with effeminate spirit does not dare to confront another man without the advantageous disparity that the estoc has in length over the sword. With similar events it comes to mind and renews resentment, and those who deserve praise detest and condemn it again…”
To summarize, blades longer than 5/4 vara:
Are offensive, immodest, excessive, and contemptible.
Will damage your own reputation by decreasing the perception of your valor for 5 generations.
Cause friends to be too ashamed to speak on your behalf, enemies to disparage you, and neutral parties to favor your adversary.
In losing, having chosen a longer weapon will cause your guilt to be worsened and the sentence and punishment is increased (judicially speaking).
Cause you to be viewed as effeminate for not confronting your adversary on equal terms.
Are regarded by the the people who are praiseworthy as detestable, and they condemn it.
He also goes on about how shorter blades and lighter blades are better for reacting to the adversary and more macho. Practically speaking, the blade should be able to deliver powerful cuts but still be light enough to change direction quickly.
My own opinion is that in an engagement of the weapons, it is useful to be able to cross and uncross your arms as well. To see what I mean carry your sword over your left arm and then grab a friend’s doublet with your left hand. Uncross your arms to bring your point in line with your friend’s chest. This is easier when the blade is shorter and a sidesword fills the role nicely.
Sword from Carranza's Text
The weapon images in the texts of Carranza (1569) and Pacheco de Narváez (1600 – approx. 1630s) show us swords that look different from the long slender rapiers in Thibault. At least in the time period of Carranza and possibly Pacheco de Narváez as well “Spanish rapier” isn’t a precise description of what I would personally consider an edge sword or side sword if you prefer.
Swords from Pacheco de Narvaez’s Text
Even as late as Francisco Lórenz de Rada’s work in the late 1600s and early 1700s, 5/4 vara is the maximum length. That being said, Girard Thibault‘s work is outside the Spanish canon so if you are interested primarily in Thibault, exceeding 5/4 vara might be acceptable.
Science versus Specific Tradition
Destreza theory is a science which can describe all types of martial arts. The Spanish tradition of swordplay is what is most often described with this science. We must not confuse the science with the specific practice of the art. Pacheco de Narváez and Carranza practice the Spanish tradition, and we can describe this with Destreza fencing theory, but that science is also used as a tool for analyzing Italian fencing and other forms as well.
While Pacheco de Narváez and the other authors recommend a sword of 5/4 vara or less for the martial tradition, Destreza doesn’t recognize a limit on weapon size from the perspective of the science. The montante and other weapons will obviously surpass this value, and Destreza still applies.