What skills do you need to make your interpretation work?

Goliath (MS Germ.Quart.2020), folio 22r

Goliath (MS Germ.Quart.2020), folio 22r

When we read a section of text from one of the historical fencing treatises, there is a wealth of information required to make the techniques work effectively. Unfortunately, much of this information is not communicated explicitly in the sources, especially in the medieval sources.

When developing an interpretation of a given passage and trying to understand how to apply the advice in practice, there are several things that must be considered. This article will try to provide some insight into the “hidden” information that we must acquire before we can make our interpretations work.

When you have worked out your interpretation of a technique or sequence from your chosen source, you may manage to achieve some success with it in drills and in sparring. Alternatively, you may find it difficult to make work int he fashion that you had envisaged while interpreting the text. Most people who fall into the latter category do so not because of a faulty interpretation, but because they lack the necessary underlying skills to make the interpretation work.

Rather than discarding the interpretation, try thinking about it in a different fashion. Make an assumption and work with that for a while before trying something else: assume that the interpretation is right (after all, you came to that interpretation for a reason), but that YOU lack the skills to make it work.

This means accepting a certain amount of personal responsibility for not being able to perform techniques; it is not the problem or the fault of the interpretation, it is a weakness or deficiency of the fencer. Such flaws can be remedied quite easily, if you know what to look for and how best to approach the problem.


Perhaps you have a clever interpretation of a piece of bladework, but you just cannot find the time to do it in sparring because the opponent always changes the situation before you can apply the movement.

Read the description of the problem again: the problem is that the opponent is faster at changing the situation than you are at applying the technique. Therefore, to solve the problem, you need to become faster at applying the technique.

So how can you become faster at applying the technique? Analyse the movement, make sure you are moving your sword in a straight line from A to B (the shortest route) and not making a bigger, unnecessary circular action (and wasting time).

Practise the movement slowly, gaining confidence and familiarity with each part of the action, developing precision and control so that even when under pressure, you move in the most efficient way to achieve the end result. In general, develop your ability to perform the motion by itself, with no extraneous motions that subtract from the fluidity and overall speed of your action.

Guy Windsor has written on this subject, about his philosophy of training:

“cultivate speed carefully, getting the mechanics absolutely right before you put a lot of energy through them, and make sure you develop the muscular support of your joints to absorb any slight errors.”


Perhaps you have another clever interpretation of a piece of bladework, where you make some kind of parry, wind your sword against your opponent’s, and then you thrust the point of your sword into him. But perhaps whenever you try this in sparring, you end up too close to your opponent, and you can never land the thrust with the point.

Again, read the description of the problem: the problem is that you are too close to your opponent to make the technique work. Therefore, you need to be at an appropriate distance when you begin the winding action, otherwise the point will not be able to come to bear on the target.

One of the mistakes that people make most often when starting to interpret fighting systems is that they do everything at the wrong distance and range.

So, what can you do to avoid coming too close when using this technique in sparring? Perhaps make a simple twist of the hips rather than taking a step forwards. Practise performing the technique with different footwork, so that you become more used to the idea of modifying the bladework to be effective at different distances.

You may notice that while drilling a technique, your partner steps towards you at a consistent, balanced pace; but then, during sparring, he may throw himself at you with a much longer step in an attempt to close the distance more safely in the unchoreographed chaos of a sparring environment. If this is the case, then it does not mean that your interpretation is flawed; it just means that you are training for a situation that does not occur in sparring! Therefore, you must adapt the drilling to replicate the sparring situation. If you need to deal with a flying leap in sparring, then drill it with a flying leap. Develop the skill of handling distance correctly.


Of course, strength is not the most important element in a fight, because someone with brains, speed, skill, or experience, may have other advantages than someone whose sole attribute is strength. However, it would be foolish to take the point of view that strength is entirely unimportant!

Sometimes people develop good and competent interpretations, but simply lack the strength to apply the interpretations in sparring.

For example, I find when fencing with the longsword that this is rarely a problem. I can support the motions with my whole body because I have both hands on the sword and can create strong geometrical structures. However, I often struggle to perform some techniques with a single-handed weapon such as the Scottish basket-hilted broadsword. The steel training broadsword is often around the same weight as the steel longsword, yet it is used only with one hand instead of two. Quite simply, sometimes I lack the raw strength in my arm to perform as well with a single-handed weapon as I can manage to perform with the longsword.

Should I abandon my interpretation of the broadsword techniques because I cannot apply them in sparring due to the weight of the sword? Of course not! The problem is in my own lack of strength, and therefore the solution is clear: develop more of the appropriate kind of strength.

Obviously, prescribing pushups for every problem is the wrong way to attempt a solution. Often, simply working with the sword and drilling the technique a few hundred times at a comfortable pace will build the necessary muscles to perform it at speed during sparring.

This is my most common problem when fencing with single-handed weapons, and so the majority of my training time spent with a single-handed weapon is solo drilling, working through techniques several hundred times over a period of a few days in order to build my strength. in other words, I attempt to develop the skill of strength when I find myself lacking in that attribute.


These are just a few potential skills, of which a lack may cause otherwise competent interpretations to fail. Do not feel that you must abandon your interpretations if you do not have much success with them. Instead, examine the problem, and find out exactly what is going wrong. More often than not, the problem is with the fencer, rather than the interpretation.

Of course, sometimes the interpretation is flawed, and it is then helpful to adjust the technique so that it works better. But someone with a poor interpretation, but who has the knack of judging distance and timing, who can strike with surprising speed and over a surprising distance, may just have the advantage over someone who knows an excellent interpretation but who lacks the skills to apply it.

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