The Espada Ropera – An Introduction to the Rapier

The rapier refers to a type of slender, large sword with a sharp, pointed tip. Although designed as a thrusting weapon, it can be used for slashing and cutting attacks, as recorded in historical treatises. It is also known as  the Estoque or the Espada Ropera. This was the main weapon during the 16th and 17th centuries in early Modern Europe.

What are the Characteristics of the Rapier and its History?

A rapier is a single-handed thrusting sword. The rapier has a lot of styles and variants coming from several countries and different periods.

Generally, the weapon featured a long, thin blade. For its hilt, it had an elaborate design and also protected the wielder’s hand by blocking the strikes of an opponent.

In the 16th century, the rapier was first developed as the Espada Ropera which translates to “dress sword”. It was a non military weapon for cutting & thrusting. This was the weapon for self-defense and duel when the earlier weapons were used only in battles.

Throughout the century, a range of new single-handed,  non military weapons were created. Signor Rocco Bonetti, an Italian swordmaster, stayed in England in 1570. He promoted the use of the rapier for thrusting instead of cutting and slashing.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What Happened to the Rapier After the Middle Ages?

When the Middle Ages ended, even civilians began using weapons. The rapier became a Renaissance man’s vital piece for self-defense. The artisans who created these cut-and-thrust swords had to use new procedures of crafting metal. This was to produce the light, slender yet durable and flexible blade.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Use of the Rapier in Italy

To most people, Italy is the symbol of rebirth and growth that happened during the Renaissance era. However, the independent city-states of this peninsula were at constant conflict and warfare was common in the entire nation.

The schools of combat in the different Italian cities displayed this competition. Each of the schools were teaching its own unique fashion and style. Because collaboration was only little, the progress of swordplay in Italy was slow until the 1700’s. This was the time when prominent Italian masters started publishing treatises on fencing.

One of the first fencing masters who promoted the use of thrusts in combat was Achille Marozzo. His 1536 treatise Opera Nova was the first to define various attacks, grips, and stances. This was reprinted multiple times.

An important thing to note is that the masters of this time considered a good offense as a great form of defense.  They described a few forms of parries while paying more attention to counterattacking ripostes.

Schools of Fencing in London, England

At first, the fighting schools were dangerous places. It drew people who used their skills for personal gain instead of noble pursuits. The English schools in London were troublesome, and the king’s edicts had to regulate these.

One specific edict was in 1286 from Edward I, which prohibited the maintenance of  schools of combat in the city. Regardless of the edicts, the schools persisted either secretly or with a license. With that, the use of the rapier was continued.

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What were the Techniques Used for Rapier Fencing?

The system of the Italian rapier fencing is what most people describe as linear. These consisted of actions executed in a straight line towards an opponent. The use of the rapier mainly depends on “Stresso Tempo” or single-time fencing. This means striking and parrying your opponent’s blade in single actions.

Here are the different techniques used in fencing with the rapier:

The Lunge

The lunge is the common form of attack in rapier fencing. This is executed by using the extension of one’s entire body in line to attack with a thrust and a cut. In modern sport, practitioners still use lunge, which proves the efficiency of this technique. Its final stage of development most likely happened in 1551.

Passing Step

This technique involves footwork – a foot passing the other to reverse one’s footing. Passing step is for certain attack and defense movements. This is to have one’s left foot forward which is an advantage since it narrows down the distance. With that, the offhand is ready for holds and parrying. It is ideal for close combat since this shortens the reach of the rapier.

Stringering

The term “stringering” commonly translates to

Stringering is placing the forte (strong) against the debile (weak), whether the blades touch or not. This technique involves alignment and the distance along the forte to the debile does not necessarily matter. It is about where the blades meet.

Stringer is done by making an opponent’s blade rest further towards your hilt, rather than the opposite. To master the stringer and know why it’s useful, one must have a full understanding of the strong and weak parts of the rapier.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

What is the Principle of Time in Fencing?

Tempo refers to the principle of time when it comes to fencing. It describes the proper timing to attack an opponent and how long the action takes. There are various tempi in which one can strike which include:

  • Primo Tempo – striking with one move from either narrow or wide measure.
  • Dui Tempo – attacking with two separate moves. This can be a parry and a riposte or a beat and a cut.
  • Mezzo Tempo – striking any of the opponent’s advanced arms from wide measure.
  • Contra Tempo – attacking an enemy when he strikes to interrupt his action. One performs this with a single tempo defense or another action that allows for striking with a single action while attacking.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Notable Masters of Rapier Fencing

In Europe, there are a lot of notable fencers who practiced with the rapier. Most of them are theorists, authors who have published fencing manuals, and instructors.

Giovanni Dall’Agocchie was an author and fencer from Italy. He published Dell’Arte di Scrima Libri Tre in 1572, a fencing manual. Another Italian master of fencing was Francesco Ferdinando Alfieri of the 17th century. He was the representative of the Maestro D’arme and the Venetian school of fencing.

Camillo Agrippa was a remarkable Italian fencer, engineer, mathematician, and architect of the Renaissance. He is one of the most prominent fencing theorists of all time. Italian born and raised Vincentio Saviolo was an author and fencing master. He wrote one of the first English books on fencing.

The Dutch fencing master Gérard Thibault of Antwerp was the author of the rapier manual of 1628, titled Academie de l’Espée. This was one of the sources on rapier combat that had the most details. Thibault used logic and geometry to back up his unorthodox swordsmanship techniques.

Paulus Hector Mair, a German civil servant from Ausburg, was also a fencing master. He collected the Fechtbücher and combined all the information of the art of fencing.

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