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Lessons from a Swashbuckler by Mark Hatmaker

This piece delves into literary waters to highlight a point of the wise marriage of academic martial study and exhaustive practice and application.

I will provide a lengthy extract from the swashbuckling novel Scaramouche by one of the masters of the historical novel, Rafael Sabatini.

The passage is from the sequence where our hero goes to a master-at-arms to become an exceptionally skilled swordsman.

I will provide the passage in full and we will pull apart aspects of it that demonstrate how we can use Andre-Louis’ method in our own training.

Feel free to ignore the swordsman specific advice that follows but, by all means latch onto the spirit of the thinking fighter’s approach.

Under this really excellent tuition AndreLouis improved at a rate that both astounded and flattered M. des Amis. He would have been less flattered and more astounded had he known that at least half the secret of AndreLouis' amazing progress lay in the fact that he was devouring the contents of the master's library, which was made up of a dozen or so treatises on fencing by such great masters as La Bessiere, Danet, and the syndic of the King's Academy, Augustin Rousseau. To M. des Amis, whose swordsmanship was all based on practice and not at all on theory, who was indeed no theorist or student in any sense, that little library was merely a suitable adjunct to a fencing academy, a proper piece of decorative furniture. The books themselves meant nothing to him in any other sense. He had not the type of mind that could have read them with profit nor could he understand that another should do so. AndreLouis, on the contrary, a man with the habit of study, with the acquired faculty of learning from books, read those works with enormous profit, kept their precepts in mind, critically set off those of one master against those of another, and made for himself a choice which he proceeded to put into practice.

From the earnest and thoughtful study of the theories of others, it followed now—as not uncommonly happens—that AndreLouis came to develop theories of his own. He lay one June morning on his little truckle bed in the alcove behind the academy, considering a passage that he had read last night in Danet on double and triple feints. 

It had seemed to him when reading it that Danet had stopped short on the threshold of a great discovery in the art of fencing. Essentially a theorist, AndreLouis perceived the theory suggested, which Danet himself in suggesting it had not perceived. He lay now on his back, surveying the cracks in the ceiling and considering this matter further with the lucidity that early morning often brings to an acute intelligence. You are to remember that for close upon two months now the sword had been AndreLouis' daily exercise and almost hourly thought. Protracted concentration upon the subject was giving him an extraordinary penetration of vision. Swordsmanship as he learnt and taught and saw it daily practised consisted of a series of attacks and parries, a series of disengages from one line into another. But always a limited series. A half dozen disengages on either side was, strictly speaking, usually as far as any engagement went. Then one recommenced. But even so, these disengages were fortuitous. What if from first to last they should be calculated?

That was part of the thought—one of the two legs on which his theory was to stand; the other was: what would happen if one so elaborated Danet's ideas on the triple feint as to merge them into a series of actual calculated disengages to culminate at the fourth or fifth or even sixth disengage? That is to say, if one were to make a series of attacks inviting ripostes again to be countered, each of which was not intended to go home, but simply to play the opponent's blade into a line that must open him ultimately, and as predetermined, for an irresistible lunge. Each counter of the opponent's would have to be preconsidered in this widening of his guard, a widening so gradual that he should himself be unconscious of it, and throughout intent upon getting home his own point on one of those counters.

And so well did he contrive that whilst he became ever of greater assistance to the master—for his style and general fencing, too, had materially improved—he was also a source of pride to him as the most brilliant of all the pupils that had ever passed through his academy. Never did AndreLouis disillusion him by revealing the fact that his skill was due far more to M. des Amis' library and his own mother wit than to any lessons received.”

Now, what might we glean from what preceded?

First—Andre-Louis did not place the cart before the horse, meaning that, he was training on a daily basis. This is vital as no matter how many texts one may read or YouTube videos one consumes if one does not have a profound physical sense for what one is seeking to master the mere academic information is theory at best and trivia at worst. [Both are a bit of a timewaster if one’s aim is performance and not mere, “Look at how many books I’ve read!”]

Second-Andre-Louis is not bound by style, dogma, masters, or any other dictate. He actively searches outside what is currently presented to him.

Yes, he goes to one Master-at-Arms for his primary education, and, yes again, he is committed to the domain of swordsmanship but within that domain he is subject to no bias, or preference, or fealty. Where there is utilitarian value, that is the test, nothing more nothing less.

Third-The internal theorizing that comes from the academic study comes AFTER being versed in the physical endeavor and even then, what is theorized and garnered from the text is taken to the floor and tested in real time with steel.

We are, all of us, [if we’re engaging in this endeavor at all wisely] perpetual students. Auto-didacts without a pause button. We are bound by no solid domain lines, no “Oops! That’s from jiu-jitsu, I’m a wrestler so I’ll skip that” or any other such slavish knee-bending nonsense.

We align ourselves with like spirits, many of whom have much to offer, but we don’t sign our minds away on the dotted line. We study, we experiment, we take our theories to our mats, rings, cages, alleyways for empirical testing. 

We become better swashbucklers by being intelligent, free-thinking, hard-working, self-experimenting warriors.

To the spirt of that endeavor.

En garde!

[For more Rough& Tumble history, Indigenous Ability hacks, and for pragmatic applications of old school tactics historically accurate and viciously verified see our RAW Subscription Service.]


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