Principles of fencing - Take 5

“I have first of all laid down the principles or grounds of all the Art” – DiGrassi, True Art of Defense

"the discipline of fencing grows on properly understood principles you have contributed to, rather than relying on mindless juggling," - Joachim Meyer, 1570

It often comes up as an assumption that there are “principles” of swordsmanship and all martial arts: universal rules. The idea being that all good systems of combat are a blend of an implicit understanding of these rules and the accepted norms of combat from that time.

Principles are:

  • Universal, meaning that they apply to every situation and weapon.
  • Empirical, meaning that they are drawn from practice.
  • Foundational, meaning that they allow you to build upon with confidence

I've attempted to write this summary several times and abandoned it every time as I confused myself. However this process has helped me consolidate my thoughts so I think it's time I attempted again and perhaps even might stimulate others to educate me by writing an improved version of this. Certainly with the more I learn I'll be attempting to revise and update this.

I think from the treatises the basic elements that come up are:

1.    The Principle of Mechanics (how to attack with defense) This is understood as Guards
and Openings 
2.    The Principle of Measure (where to move) This is understood as Place and Line of fight
3.    The Principle of Speed (when to act) This is understood as Tempo and Timing


Having the right action, in the right place, with the right time

Mechanics (strong/weak)

At it's most basic level this is how you arrange your body to deliver force (Guards). It's about understanding both your body and the nature of your tool, i.e. sword, and all the different ways to generate force so you can be strong or weak at command. It enables an understanding of reading your opponent through body language (Openings) or how strong/weak your opponent can attack from a position or how effectively they can resist force, how you can display the appearance of force and what arrangement of your body is required to break an opponent's position. 

Measure (long & close, on or off centre)

In its simplest form this is about the range of your actions and the range of your opponents actions (Measure). Different body action will work at different ranges. Also how where you stand in relation to your opponent influences which openings you can strike (Lines). The safety of understanding that if your opponent is holding the centre line that needs to be respected and addressed to avoid doubles. Understanding the advantages and disadvantages of where you place yourself.

Speed (quick/slow)

At it's most basic time is about how the time it takes to do an action. Attacking with just the hand is very fast, attacking with having to step a step slower and attacking and taking a passing step is slower yet, This is a tempo. As you move through space your actions become slower or faster so gain or lose time. The whole fight also gains a rhythm based around the time it takes to perform the series of single actions (step and cut, parry, thrust with lunge, pass backwards), this is the tempo. Once you've understood the tempo you can then determine how to act faster or slower (before or after) to generate advantage, i.e. timing. It can be expressed in both action and in-action: doing something quickly, slowly or not doing anything at all.


Understanding a situation (or better yet how to create an advantageous situation) by knowing how to read advantage from the positions of bodies, at what range and with what movement and how move quickly or slowly to exploit that advantage equals "Judgement."  From these principles people tend to form rules to summarise the complex situations and reaction required in sword combat and to speed up our reaction time or "judgement".

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