This, dear readers, is going to be a long one. Even so, it will still barely cover the subject comprehensively. I can only hope to explain the basic principles.
The Verdadera Destreza may be translated to mean “the true knowledge or art.” Prior to this form, the “esgrima vulgar” or “common fencing” was the predominant art. Early teachers included Pedro de la Torre, Jaume Pons (both writing in 1474) and Fransico Roman. (1532.
Then along came a gentlemen named Heronimo de Caranca who wrote two treaties, the first in 1569 and the second, more famous “De La Philosofia de las Armas” in 1600, and who basically redefined the Spanish art of the sword. His student, Don Luis Pacheco de Narvaez (Libro de las Gradezas del la Espada – 1625) claims Caranca was originally inspired by the works of Agrippa. While this may or may not be true, there are similarities with regard to utilizing geometry.
One of the most striking originalities of the Spanish system was training on diagrams drawn on the floor. Although Caranca used many simple diagrams, we will look at the more famous drawing of Thibault of Antwerp. Here, the dimensions of the circle relate to the blade-length of the rapier which was intended for this purpose to be equal to the height of a man from the feet to the quillons held level with the navel. (there are other definitions of what a proper blade length should be but we’ll stay with this one for now) The arm should then be extended until the point touches the ground and a circle inscribed around you from this length. A square is then drawn around the circle so it touches the circle in the centre the straight line. (it should be noted that in Narvaez, the square is inside the circle with its corners touching the interior) Lines, known as “chord” lines are now inscribed across the various diameters. In my translation of Thibault’s “Academy of the Sword” (1628) the first 37 pages of the first book are the mathematical instructions for drawing the circles, defining them variously as circumference, diameter, perpendicular diameter, oblique diameters, inner and outer collaterals, inner and outer traverses, circumscribed square, , etc, all which relate to the human figure depicted within.
The figure must be mentally visualized as standing since the chord lines all relate offensively and defensively to critical areas on both you and your opponent’s body.
The body is held erect with the right foot on the circle line and the rear foot off it. The body is usually oriented so that the right shoulder is angled towards your opponent with the chest and hips presented sideways, thus reducing the target potential. The feet are usually depicted in a narrow stance, less than 12 inches apart.
Fencers travel around the edge of the circle while seeking to gain advantage or tempt their opponent into attacking. Movement can be made both forward and back. Classified as “Los Compases,” foot movement is defined as the Pasada, a short step, the Pasada Simple, a longer step, and the Pasada Doble, two steps using alternating feet. There is no lunge as an Italian practitioner would understand it.
The sword is held with the arm straight from the shoulder, its point directed towards your opponent. The orientation of the hilt is with quillons parallel to the ground, either in pronation, (knuckles up) supination, (knuckles down) or in-between with the quillons vertical and the knuckles facing your right.
Narvaez considered that there were two methods for gaining advantage to attack. The first was Angle which is determined by the meeting of the blades. Angles formed in the middle of the blades, he considered being favourable for defense while obtuse and acute angles were regarded as better for defense combined with offense. Another one of his concepts was “ganado los grados al perfil,” or gaining the degrees of profile. This concept implies that you acquired your targets by successive steps around your opponent. Sound simple? It’s not.
Another movement was known as Closing the Straight Line, achieved by taking a position where your sword threatens your opponent so he cannot enter or attack without first dealing with your blade or simply being hit.
These were referred to as the Instances. Thibault qualifies them as follows:
The First Instance: In this, extended points reach to the hilt.
The Second Instance: Extended points reach to the combatant’s elbows.
The Third Instance: Combatants are position so that their points reach each other’s shoulders.
Strokes are defined as Tajo (cut) or Medio Tajo, (half-cut) Reves (reverse cut) and Medio Reves (reverse half-cut. Tajos are performed in pronation while Reves and done in supination and accomplished by movement from the elbow. There was also a cut done from the shoulder, styled an Arrebater and tip-cuts accomplished by a turn of the wrist, known as Mandoble. There was also a cut known as an Estramason which was a fast cut to the face using the sword’s tip, possibly accomplished as a mandible.
Cuts were defined by where they originate, not their target.
Narvaez speaks of the “Rectitudines,” defining the nature of a cut or sword movement in general, they being : Violenta, Natural, Remisso, de Reduccion, Extrano and o Accidental. (Violent, natural, forgiving, decreasing, rare and accidental) Natural movement, for example, would be a down-cut, Violent, a upper-cut or rising cut, Remisso being the removal backwards of the sword, etc.
Known as Estocada, thrusts were delivered by stepping to your opponent’s right or left, or stepping forward along an imaginary chord line that corresponds with the line of attack. (remember that the chord lines show the direct lines of attack to critical areas of your opponent’s body from foot to top of the head. Narvaez calculated that there were 83 angles of attack formed between two opposing bodies)
Thrusts were made over the arm, travelling down, usually pronated and from the right, (which Italians would classify as imbrocatta) or under the arm from the lower right side. (stocatta)
Known collectively as Desvio, most sword work involved a combination of small movements with the weapon combined with movement of the body. The Spanish system develops the methodology of combination defensive-movement-becomes-reposte to a very high degree.
If, for instance, I assume a position where my sword is held at my shoulder level, this (intentionally) invites an attack to my mid or lower torso. If my opponent chooses to attack my lower torso, I could then bring my sword into the position of septime (7) while simultaneously stepping back with my left (rear) foot in the manner of an inquartata, and direct my point at a 45 degree angle downwards, allowing his forward motion to help impale him the stomach. Or, if I have tempted by opponent to hit while I am in motion, say, stepping to my left with my left foot, I might drop my sword so that his blade is deflected downwards using my outside quillon, angle my point upwards, and stepping forward on my right foot, impale him in the throat. Or if the attack is a stocatta to my right armpit, I could rotate my sword from pronation with a half-twist, re-directing his blade with my inside quillon and sending it to my right, while at the same time, stepping forward on my left foot and stabbing him in the shoulder or throat.
No end to the fun you can have…
Here’s a commentary from a period master, Alvaro Guerra de la Vega from his commentaries on important matters from 1681:
Every stance you master, must be good to ‘short cut’ your opponent’s.
Every stab inflicted without a ‘short cut’ is false (not the best).
Every stance can be ‘short cut’.
The right angle is good to avoid incoming attacks.
The obtuse angle is useful to stop our foe’s sword.
Three planes of reference are to be considered.
First plane: from head to shoulders.
Second plane: from shoulders to waist.
Third plane: from waist to feet.
Ther first plane is to be defended with the guard.
The second one with the force of the sword.
The third one with the frailty, including your enemy’s sword.
High guard, low point.
Low guard, high point.
If our foe is showing us his profile, we must look for the ‘medio proporcional’.
If he is squared, we must always attack him from the ‘medio proporcional’.
The ‘medio proporcional’ has to be considered by the positioning of the opponent’s sword.
No matter the side you choose for the ‘medio proporcional’, you must always be front towards your enemy.
When attacking, be very careful, never show your body to your enemy’s weapon.
Never attack if you are not sure it will be a perfect movement.
Never stand on both feet at the same time; one of them must be ready, touching just slightly the floor.
You sword will always be on movement.
Here is a short excerpt from Angelo (1787) on his observations of the Spanish style:
“The Spaniards have in fencing a different method to all other nations… their guard is almost straight, their lunge very small. Their ordinary guard is with their wrist in tierce and point in line with the face. When they come into distance they bend the right knee and straighten the left and carry the body forward. When they retire they bend the left knee and straighten the right – they throw the body back well in a straight line with that of the antagonist, and parry with the left hand or slip the right foot behind the left.
Their swords are near five foot long from the hilt to point and cut with both sides. The shell is very large and the quillons extend two inches on each side. They make use of this to wrench the sword out of the adversary’s hand by binding or crossing his blade with it.”
And this from George Silver (Paradoxes of Defense, 1599)
“…they stand as brave as they can with their bodies straight upright, narrow-spaced, with their feet continually moving as they were in a dance, holding forth their arms and rapiers very straight against the face or bodies of their enemies. … als long as any man shall lie in that manner with his arme … it shall be impossible to hurt him because in that straight holding forth of his arms, which way soever the blow shall be made against him, by reason that his rapier hilt lyeth so far before him, he hath but a very little way to move to make his ward perfect.”
One of the things the Destreza does is teach distance in absolute terms. Its elegant subtlety gives the appearance of simplicity yet it is anything but. One of its principles is to constantly move your sword and body in a way that closes off certain venues of attack while opening up others. In this way, you subconsciously guide your opponent into a series of predictable attacks which can be dealt with quickly with minimal movement, and combined with a counter-attack that your enemy often aids and abets by his commitment to your invitation. This is one of the reasons the rest of the world referred to this system as “the Magic Circle,” since it gave the uncomfortable appearance that your opponent was reading your mind.
As I said at the beginning, this is a rather simplistic and entirely incomplete picture of this system. This is an essay, not a book. I hope, however, that I have given you a good basis for understanding the physical, dynamic principles behind this elegant and deadly art.
Never stop learning.