Context Matters

Often missing in descriptions of techniques, both historic and modern, is context. This is a problem because context matters a lot. A technique that works brilliantly at one measure may fall apart one pace closer or farther apart. An attack that is designed to work against an opponent who is stationary may not work against one in motion and vice-versa.

These are some of the factors that go into the question of context:

Measure or Distance

The most obvious example is grappling. Clearly a technique that begins with a wrist grab won’t work when you are three paces away.

Less obvious are provocations and invitations. Most provocations are based around the idea that you have enough distance, and thus time, to deal with whatever reaction your opponent makes. If the measure is too small, the provocation won’t work

Basic Terminology

  • Out of measure: Can land a blow even with a passing step
  • Wide measure:  Can strike with a step
  • Narrow measure: Can strike without a step
  • Corps-a-corps: Can touch the opponent with the hand or foot

Action or Inaction

When the text says “the opponent is Tag” what does that mean? Is the opponent entering Tag? Or are they already in Tag?

If entering the guard, are they doing so in preparation for an attack? Or as a recovery for an attack they have just completed? Are they slipping the sword in anticipation of an attack against themself? Or are they merely shifting their guard for a tactical reason?

If they are already in the guard, what are they doing there? Are they in an aggressive  posture, ready to pounce at the first opening? Or a defensive posture, expecting to parry and counter-attack. Perhaps they have hesitated, unsure of what to do next.

The effectiveness of a given technique depends a lot on the answers to these questions.


  • The opponent is static (unmoving) or dynamic (moving)
  • If static, the opponent is attentive or inattentive (i.e. laying in wait or just catching their breath)
  • If dynamic, are they beginning or ending their action

Height and Reach

Size matters. Not all the time, but there are definitely techniques that work better or worse depending on the relative height and reach of the fencers.

Be careful to not fall into the trap of believing that taller is always better. A tall person may not necessarily have proportionately longer arms, so when reporting findings consider the arm length separately from how the height changes the angles.


We like to talk about armor as a binary question: either someone is fully dressed in tournament plate or not armored at all. But historically the question was far more nuanced. Manciolino explicitly talks about choosing which part of the body to armor for a duel based on relative heights. Meyer tells us to practice in and out of armor, though it is hard to imagine his middle-class students owning full plate and he doesn’t offer the specialized techniques for it.

Real or Play Swords

Historic fencing is not just about life and death fights. The ability to spar in friendly matches, fight seriously but not lethally in tournaments, and display feats of swordsmanship such as solo routines and test cutting were all very important parts of a fencer’s repertoire. No one is going to hire a fencing master who kills his students and outright thugs aren’t invited to tournaments. And if a duke whose patronage you seek asks for a demonstration before the court, you damn well better be able to perform.

So arises the question of real or play swords. Some masters explicitly call this out, saying a technique is suitable for one, the other, or both. You see this in Manciolino where he talks about the play sword with the small buckler and the real (literally “edged”) sword for the large buckler.

For the modern student, the factors involve are steel, wood, or synthetic. If steel, sharp, blunt, or feder. If synthetic, low-grade (i.e. Rawlings) or high-grade (Pentii, Blackfencer) with or without taped edges.

Blade length and Guard Style

And since we are on the topic of weapons, guards matter too. I know from experience that trying to perform Marozzo’s small buckler assaults with a complex hilt rapier is an exercise in frustration. But switch to a simple crossguard, with or without finger-rings, and its elegance is revealed. And don’t forget, the schilt on a feder longsword is part of the guard characteristics.

Likewise, the length of the blade matters. The techniques in Capoferro make a lot more sense with a 45” blade than they do with a 35” blade.

Is this all?

No. There are lots of other things I haven’t talked about such as whether the weights are shifted forward or back, if each fencer just stepped closer or farther from his opponent, how you are lined up laterally, are you both facing the center line, etc. etc.

It would be impossible to list every last detail of context, let alone try to explain how and why each factor does or does not affect the technique in question. But at least try to hit the highlights when introducing a play.

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1 Response to Context Matters

  1. Brian says:

    Fantastic rundown of things to keep in mind when striving to properly analyze technique. It’s easy to distinguish your professional insights from the passing hobbyist perspectives you mostly see online.

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