Cavalcabo: Tactical Advice

So, I’m trawling through Cavalcabo’s fencing text [1]the very influential translation by Villamont from Italian to French of Cavalcabo’s Treatise or Instruction on Fighting with Weapons (1597) and a similar essay by Patenostrier, available in English translation by Rob Runacres of the Renaissance Sword Club for nuggets of tactical advice. You know the sort of thing I mean, “always maintain the initiative,” “don’t  feint because smart fencers won’t fall for it and stupid ones won’t respond the way you want,” etc. Never have I been bombarded with so much information about how to manage a rapier and dagger fight than by this text.

My plan for this post was to list out all the quotes and tease the meaning out of them. There’s too many of them so I’ll give you a few key quotes and you can trust me that these are only the tip of the iceberg. So many more lie in await. Only the poor organization of the text itself prevents them from being more obvious. Here goes:

To make the enemy strike where you want

Use this way, which is to hold your sword in tierce and your dagger near your right arm so that the enemy cannot strike outside of the left side. Further, you can place yourself in quarte, and keep your dagger joined to the sword, so that he has the occasion to strike the right side.”

Against those who never want to strike

It is necessary to strike the nearest part, retiring to seconde, or else in quarte guard, to wait for the enemy’s riposte to which, he coming to strike you, you will take the part that seems to you the best and the most convenient.

For Cavalcabo, defense is the position of strength; it is  In order to attack, you must leave the strong position, disordering yourself, extending and expanding into distance and into the opponent’s range of action. The trick is to convince the opponent to venture out of his or her defensive position. There are two ways given to do this.

The first is positional: present the opponent such a juicy target that he or she cannot resist the urge to attack by leaving uncovered your left or right sides. You must be able to recognize whether and when the opponent is likely to take the bait and you must have an action or narrow range of action prepared and ready to go the instant the opponent reacts.
The second is movement: attack so that the opponent believes you disordered and makes a counter-attack. You attack and immediately return to a guard position to await the opponent’s response. The trick here is to make your attack, in truth a feint, with just enough resolution to be believable and maintain sufficient time to return to your defensive position, not necessarily the one you started in.

Tempi of the sword, tempi of the dagger, and tempi of the foot are those that can be taken, being in measure, when one wants to offend the enemy.

If you see your enemy’s foot close, it will be to offend you. If it is wide, it will be to wait.

The first statement is a common place. The idea of recognizing that when the opponent moves his or her sword or dagger, they are thinking about that action and not you is found throughout the history of Italian rapier and sidesword fencing. There’s no need to rehash it here except to say that Cavalcabo presents plenty of techniques and exercises which involve cavering around the moving weapon in order to strike the opponent.

The second statement I cannot recall seeing anywhere else. Essentially, you need to pay attention to your opponent’s feet. A wide stance indicates that the opponent is concerned with remaining grounded, centered and balanced. He or she is unlikely to be moving anywhere. A narrow stance with the feet closer together, however, indicates that the opponent is thinking of moving, most likely expanding forwards to attack. (The opponent may always be thinking of retreat, in which case there are ways given for handling this as well.)

Cavalcabo presents, in his disorganized and piecemeal fashion, a very clear set of tactical instructions to complement the exercises and techniques which will repay close study many times over.

There’s a few more difficult passages I want to unpack. Then I’ll work on some exercises to bring out the key techniques and ways of handling common situations. I reckon all of these will be partner drills so start looking for swordy friends and getting them interested in Cavalcabo.

Notes   [ + ]

1. the very influential translation by Villamont from Italian to French of Cavalcabo’s Treatise or Instruction on Fighting with Weapons (1597) and a similar essay by Patenostrier, available in English translation by Rob Runacres of the Renaissance Sword Club