Camillo Agrippa, Part the Third

In this third part of my wallowing in the cesspool of Agrippa’s 1553 fencing text Trattato Di Scientia d’ Arme, I want to examine the primary guards of Stance B and Stance D and try to understand the differences Agrippa makes between them. To me they seem like mirror images of each other in terms of function and Agrippa, too, treats them in this way.

Again, I’d like to acknowledge that I’m a beginner and make no claim to the accuracy or utility of what follows. I’d love anyone who understands Agrippa to correct me.

First, let’s define some terms. Agrippa defines a number of stances (static guard positions) and actions (movements for attack or defence) in his own quite peculiar way. They form a short-hand to understand how he wants you to move in a given circumstance. I’ll be using the hand positions first, second, third and fourth as discussed in my previous post on Agrippa.

Stances and Actions

Camillo Agrippa - Stance BStance B: Hold your weapon in second position in a narrow stance, that is with you feet close together but you right foot slightly forward of your left. Keep your off hand or secondary weapon (dagger or buckler) in front of you covering your chest. In second position, your hand is held at the same horizontal level as your shoulder with the blade covering your outside line.

Agrippa’s basic tactical advice for this stance is to step backward with your left foot in the face of an attack into Stance D then counterthrust with opposition. To attack from Stance B, you simply step forward (presumably on the circle rather than straight ahead) with your right foot and drive your point home.

Camillo Agrippa - Stance DStance D: Hold  you weapon in fourth position in a wide stance, that is with your feet about shoulder width apart and your right foot forward. The trick with this stance is to turn your body so that you present your right side to your opponent. Your sword is held on the inside of your right knee and is protecting your inside line. Because of your side-on orientation, your left hand is best held out of the way or above your head.

Agrippa warns explicitly against using this stance against a skilled opponent but elsewhere claims that there is no tactical difference between this and Stance C in that both hold an opponent at wide distance from you.

Camillo Agrippa - Action HAction H: Hold yourself in Stance B and take either a step forward with your right foot or a step backwards with your left foot. In either case, you are performing Action H, a thrust with your hand in second position. This action is best used to counter a riversa (cut from the attacker’s left) or a thrust from Stance D (see immediately below). Use this action, Agrippa says, against an opponent standing in a wide third position stance (ie: Stance C).

Camillo Agrippa - Action IAction I: This action is much more opaque. On the face of it, it seems like a standard Italian or classical lunge in fourth but since you already begin the action in a wide stance, stretching forward or stepping into a wider position appears counterproductive. It appears to be the final part of a larger action which involves contracting or narrowing one’s stance to void an attack before counter-thrusting. Use this action, says Agrippa, against an opponent standing in a narrow third position (ie: Stance F).

Actions H and I are, in effect, the counters for each other. Agrippa does not devote a great deal of space in the text to these two stances and two actions yet they seem to form a core technique in this tradition. Everywhere he discusses one, he discusses the other. According to Agrippa, one feints from stance B then cavares under the opponent’s weapon to thrust home using Action I. The mirror image is to feint in D, cavare under and counterthrust using Action H. If we leave out the footwork, this represents a shift of the hand from second to fourth position or the reverse. This is a core technique in modern fence.

Parries or counters from Stance B and Stance D involve the same basic mechanic: you change your guard into Stance C (moving either forwards or backwards as circumstances dictate) in order to capture (stingere, trouver, gain, etc) or cross the opponent’s blade and from that point you launch yourself forward using either Action H or I to drive home your attack.

Agrippa does not seem to have any attacks starting from Stance B or D. Perhaps this is why Capo Ferro says that they are not guard positions but stages in particular attacking or defending actions. Stances B and D are the starting (or ending) points of Actions H and I. Like Actions G (and P) and K discussed last time, they seem to be defensive in nature and more in the line of a manner to counter-thrust once an attack has been parried, voided or otherwise set aside. Against a cut, whether from the left of the right, these Actions can be used as a single-time defence which in one move blocks the opponent’s cut and counter-thrusts against the opponent. The key to these techniques is the feint. You need to force the opponent to move and break his or her guard so that you can use these techniques in response.

Plays from Stance B and Stance D

There does not seem to be a set of plays specifically for Stance B or D or Action H or Action I. This is completely dissimilar to the fixed plays for Stance C. What Agrippa provides instead is a bunch of tactical advice. You can easily develop your own plays from this.

Wide versus Narrow

  • If your opponent stands in a wide stance (feet wide apart), adopt Stance B. When your opponent attacks, step back with your left foot into a wide stance such as Stance C or Stance D before counter-attacking.
  • If your opponent stands in a narrow stance (feet close together), adopt Stance D. When you opponent attacks, step back with your right foot into Stance B (or Stance F?) before counter-attacking.

Double-Time Defence

  • If you are standing in either Stance B or in Stance D and your opponents thrusts at you, change into Stance C to defeat his attack di cruce (at the cross) before counter-attacking.

Update: See further installments at: