Dandic, pompous and quarrelsome: uses and customs in Iberian fencing salles at the XVI and XVII centuries Friday September 16th, 2016 – Posted in: Destreza Comum, Destreza Portuguesa, Paraesgrima, Verdadeira Destreza – Tags: , , , ,

«Uses and Customs in Iberian Fencing Salles at the XVI and XVII Centuries» by
Manuel Valle Ortiz, Denís Fernández Cabrera
Compostela, Galiza: AGEA Editora, 2016.

This paper is an extract from the foretexts which will be included in Tomas Luis’ Lições da Espada Preta second edition, currently undergoing the last publishing stages. This second edition, reviewed and expurged, will present data such as we list here, plus a complete english translation which, we hope, will facilitate access to this information to the international public.

«The Master must be on standing feet, with a staff in hand to prevent wrongdoings and to punish those who commit them.»

Thomas Luis,
Tratado das Lições da Espada Preta

The abundant literature of the Iberian fencing between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries provides indications on how students and teachers should behave in the fencing salles (salas de armas, lit. «halls of arms»), both in teaching and in the competitions which may take place there.

This subject, parallel to the theoretical and practical study of fencing technique itself, can be significantly enlightening and complementary to the latter since it reveals, for example, the level of safety and injuries that could be expected, and therefore the intensity or conservatism that fighters usually employed in their assaults. It is also enlightening to learn that competitions between schools were not rare, and that teachers should be contained in the same way that students, or that trickstery and falsehood were the order of the day between each other. Finally, you can also infer divergent approaches to teaching in how different authors structured their works, which is useful in the interpretation of their texts but also when it comes to structure lessons in the present.

We decided therefore to gather in a short article an introduction to this material. We hope it will arouse interest in the study of what we might call parafencing, and help whomever might be curious to identify some of the most relevant sources.

Protective equipment and safety

First we must consider the protective elements that were used in fencing salles and in real combat situations.

In the Real Cedula de nombramiento del Maestro Mayor Gomez Dorado (a royal decree appointing Gomez Dorado as fencing «grand master» — the public office which regulated and presided over fencing in the kingdom) granted by the Catholic Kings on June 4, 1478 in Zaragoza, it specifies that the Master has the obligation to make sure that his disciples wear a protective cap on their head. The hat provides considerable protection to the head and face, especially if it spots a wide brim. Luis Diaz de Viedma (1639) wrote that pieces of the hats’ brims could end up littering the floor of fencing salles. Tomas Luis (1685), not so concerned with safety as with pride, writes in his Lições da Espada Preta that if you are wounded in the head, instead of showing the wound by removing the hat, we should tigthen it down to stop the bleeding and keep fighting and therefore not give your opponent the satisfaction of knowing their strike connected. It was also considered good practice for blows aimed at the opponent’s face not to finish them, but deflect them instead towards the brim of the hat, knocking it to the ground. This is further illustrated in the well known (although apocryphal) episode between Pacheco de Narvaez and Quevedo. Already in the eighteenth century Rodriguez del Canto in his book El Discípulo Instruído gives a description of the hat of the Master:

«El sombrero que se ha de poner el Maestro para aleccionar ha de ser tendido de alas y muy fuerte o duro, no porque el discípulo ha de ejecutar las cuchilladas con mucha fuerza, antes bien con ella reservada; sino por si acaso, ya de cansado o por olvido y descuido, diere fuerte».

[«The hat the Master must wear to instruct is to be of wide wings and brim and strong or hard, not because the disciple will strike with strength, for they should instead restrain themselves; but just in case that student, either tired or forgetful and careless, giveth strength to the blow».]

We can assume that until the early seventeenth century costume elements like ruffle necks provided good protection, as well as the late seventeenth century the fashion of wearing long, flowing hair.

Another element of the wardrobe that provided protection was the cape. Pacheco in his Libro de las Grandezas de la Espada (1600) shows an engraving of the cape wrapped around the body as protection and recommends to train wearing it in such way (and not to remove it as usual) to be prepared in case of a real fight.

There is evidence of the use of capes actively in Godinho’s Arte de Esgrima (1599), in Figueiredo’s Oplosophia (1628), in Pacheco’s Modo Fácil (1625) and in his Nueva Ciencia, (posthumous, 1672) as well as in Rodriguez del Canto (ca. 1735).

The gloves were part of the gentleman’s costume. Although not specifically mentioned in many sources, they do appear in the mentioned Cédula de Nombramiento de Gomez Dorado in 1478, and later in the Discípulo Instruído of Rodriguez del Canto: «The gloves must be suede, but very flexible, so as not to prevent the handling and play [of the sword].»

Training swords

As for the swords used in training, from Tomas Luis can be inferred that it was not uncommon to use espadas pretas (black swords), ie: blunt and without points, specifically made for practice, as opposed to the «white weapons» made to hurt. [Translator’s Note: both in portuguese and in spanish cutting and thrusting weapons are called armas brancas (lit. «white weapons»), and by opposition swords which don’t cut are armas pretas, «black weapons». These were in Thomas Luis’ times practice rapiers, and are not to be confused with the portuguese espadas pretas de bordo, a form of adapted naval weapon which was painted black to prevent rusting.]

These practice swords sported a botão («button») at the tip (some form of blunted widening, integral to the blade of the sword) which was in turn wrapped by the sapatilha («shoe»): a cover, perhaps of leather. In turn, this sapatilha appears to have been stuffed (perhaps with wool?). Twisting and removing the sapatilha from their own sword, exposing the hard-metal botão which was perhaps too dangerous, was a common enough ruse among ill-willing practitioners that Tomas Luis warned against it and recommended to be alert during bouts least this happened.

Pacheco, in Grandezas, recommends training with swords which are neither too light nor short, but «of the mark» (ie: the length legally marked for a sharp sword of the time), and even somewhat heavier than the weapon one would normally carry. He also suggests, contrary to what is indicated in the previous paragraph, to use «white» swords which have had their edges blunted, and with a small «button» [presumably done by folding the tip?] and without «shoe» to better resemble actual swords. Diaz de Viedma uses broad swords, once white with their edges removed in the sharpening wheel, and with small «shoes». Tomas Luis recommends that swords should be stiff and «good cutters». Rodriguez del Canto prefers a sword with large «button» and no edges for regular training, and for the public arena (that is: for exhibitions) one which should be stiff, light, with a good handguard, without sharp edges, and with big «button» or «shoe».

Practice swords were propierty of the fencing salle and whomever broke one had to pay the price to the Master.

Before a fencing bout, practice swords were «settled», ie: they were placed on the ground, from where fencers would pick them up and where they would put them down at the end of the encounter.

Friendly and hostile fencing: Batalhas and Brigas

Batalhas (lit. «battles», with the verb being batalhar: «to battle») was the term used to refer to the friendly bouts which took place in the fencing salles between students of the same Master (or sometimes with visiting students of other Masters). Serious, real fights were instead called Brigas (lit. «quarrels»; brigar = «to quarrel»). These encounters, Batalhas and Brigas, were governed by different uses in each case.

For Batalhas, the contestants stripped of their swords and capes, as well as other weapons they might be carrying, before starting the fight. Tomas Luis recommends to leave the cape and your own (sharp) sword in the care of a good friend, because fencing at the salles could sometimes generate conflict situations requiring to have real weapons within reach. Also it was recommended, at the end of the, not to put down the practice sword before picking up your cloak and real sword.

Pacheco (Grandezas) advises to battle without removing the cape and other weapons as a form of training for serious cases.

The Master oversaw the fighting, using a variety of tools to stop the action, separate weapons or disputing parties and to punish the offenders striking them on their hats. Figueiredo, in his Oplosophia, states his preference in this regard for the Master’s staff (~175cm tall, iron-shod) and details rules for its use and the information below. The main alternative was the montante (or even sometimes, we are told, the halberd).

The Master of the salle was the one who wielded the staff and ran the fight, but in case of confrontation between students from different schools, to avoid conflict between teachers, the staff could be handed down to one of the fencers present and in doing so prevent one form of injustice described by Thomas Luis: that the Master would help his student, interfering with the staff in the opponent’s actions.

Figueiredo finds it inadvisable to give the staff to anyone other than a Master, because it is the symbol of authority, and suggests that «black» swords are to be used to mediate in the combat instead.

Although Godinho recommended that the Master should not participate in public battles, it would be acceptable for him to fight other Masters or distinguished persons. By contrast, in the Dialogo (1724) it is recommended that the Master should battle anyone who asks to, and allow the participation of any person (including black people and slaves) in the public fencing bouts.

The salute

Generally a friendly fencing bout formally began with the contestants taking the practice swords from the ground and saluting each other.

Godinho describes the following steps: pick up the practice weapons from the ground, take off the sharp sword and cape, salute by crossing the sword with your opponent and begin the fight. Figueiredo says one should avoid excessive flourishes, being sufficient to take off the hat at the beginning and end of the fight.

Rodriguez del Canto, in the eighteenth century, gives us a fairly detailed description: with one of the contenders already in the field, the other approaches with his sharp sword, cape, jacket and hat, picks up the sword from the ground, salutes the Master and steps off to remove the cape and the weapons he might be carrying. Once done he pulls off the hat, crosses his (practice) sword with the Master’s montante and then with the sword of the opponent. With these courtesies done, he would return to his place in the fencing arena, put back the hat and the fight may begin.

Godinho also wrote in Arte de Esgrima a description of the greetings and flourishes that were made at the end of a fencing bout before laying the swords back on the ground. In the Título de Teniente de Maestro Mayor de don Pio de Zea of 1788 (a royal title appointing Pio de Zea as fencing master to the king) the ancient custom of paying salute to the Master and the other contender by crossing the swords is mentioned. The Dialogo (1724) of Oviedo recommends as well to perform courtesies to begin and end the battle.

It is curious to see that all the descriptions we have, although with more than a century inbetween and coming from salles from different parts of the Iberian Peninsula, have many similarities. Thus, opposing the misconception that the Destreza practitioners didn’t salute, we have several testimonies in contemporary literature, in addition to the already presented descriptions in fencing manuals, proving that indeed this cerimonial salute existed and could be considerably convoluted.

Duration, scoring and advice for fencing bouts

Gomes de Figueiredo (Oplosophia) proposes to limit the fight to six assaults to increase the resolution of the fencers and avoid obstinacy should one of them repeatedly fail (even if the winner may continue fencing). He also establishes a system for evaluating the blows that may occur: thrust before talho (right-side cut) and talho better than revez (left-side cut); more value was given to attacks on higher lines than in lower ones; first intention attacks were valued above second intention ones.

Should a fencer’s sword break, they are to leave the fight, but may defend themselves with whatever fragments remain of the weapon if need be.

Mendez de Carmona (Avisos) recommends to battle «with intent» to impress the opponent and whatever spectators may be present, but if faced with princes and lords one should pay the due respect and courtesy, even letting them win.

Tomas Luis warns us that the strikes given in the battle must be high, from the waist up, and the ones aimed to the face should avoid touching it, redirecting instead to the brim of the hat to knock it down.

Tomas Luis also warns that in the case of receiving an injury in the mouth one should avoid spitting blood. On the contrary, he recommends tightening the lips and go on fighting the opponent, and not give them the satisfaction of knowing they have wound you.

Pacheco, in the Modo Fácil y Nuevo warns that any injuries are the responsibility of the person who produced them, who must take care of the expenses necessary for healing: two doubloons and a hat for a head wound.

Apart from all these recommendations the Dialogo (1724) lists several more:

  • Do not insult or use profanity; do not speak during the battle
  • No tripping or pushing.
  • Do not grab blades with the left hand.
  • Do not take advantage of a fallen opponent, or from one whose blade just broke.

The school space

The same Diálogo states that schools must have benches for the students and a chair for the Master, and that the room should be clean and tidy, without furniture or obstacles. There must be good swords «of the mark» (ie: the length which law stated for them) available, with good buttons and shoes. And lighting if lessons are to take place at night.

In some of the illustrations from the Destreza manuals we can see (but we can’t be sure wether those represented actual, real spaces) large rooms, with tiled floor, completely clear (Pacheco, Grandezas; Pacheco, Principios Geométricos; Ettenhard; Pona; Rodriguez del Canto).


Apart from the stipend the Master was given for the regular lessons (eight or twelve monthly reais, according to Pacheco in his Modo Fácil), private lessons or learning certain special techniques might cost an additional fee.

Godinho mentions the payment of a fee equivalent to one (or more) month’s lesson worth to teach the use of the cape as a separate specialty. It also warns that some Masters (and Grand Masters) teach the dagger, buckler and shield as separate weapons in order to charge triple, when in fact they are very similar.

Modo Fácil y Nuevo also mentions charging extra fees for the teaching of special techniques. Pacheco also warns that some dishonest teachers could receive this money and let themselves be easily be defeated by their disciples, thus giving them the impression they had achieved great competence, and even go as far as to arrange fixed fencing bouts with other masters which would help convince the disciple of the great skill they have developed.

Teaching lefties

Left handed people were treated differently.

Godinho writes in his Oplosophia a chapter with specific recommendations to fight lefties.

Figueiredo (Arte de Esgrima) considers left-handedness a defect that must be corrected, although he admits that the fencer must get used to dealing with lefties and even know how to handle the sword with the left hand, just in case.

Tomas Luis in Lições da Espada Preta states that it is more difficult to cope with a left-handed fencer, and gives recommendations for the most appropriate techniques to deal with them.

Diaz de Viedma recognizes the difficulty of dealing with left-handed fencers («that because of bad parenting have this major flaw»). He recommends that left-handed fencers should be turned right-handed, for which he develops his own method.

Rodriguez del Canto informs us that the techniques against left-handed people are just the regular ones, only changing the inside by outside lines.

Fencing at night

In special situations such as at night or in a dark place you should search for the opponent’s sword with yours, and avoid speaking because «the tongue neither wounds nor kills» and can instead reveal where you are to your adversaries. Tomas Luis recommends practicing this situation by blindfolding the fencers in the weapons hall.

Several sources state that the montante should be carried unsheathed at night, for ease of use if necessary, without cumbersome unsheathing. They also recommend not to leave capes, hats or sheaths of swords abandoned at the site of the fight, both because of its material value and also as to leave no evidence which might facilitate the identification of participants. [View Ton Puey]

Other situations

Some authors like Martin Firme distinguish between techniques (and, particularly, attitudes) for the «black» practice sword and those for the «white», sharp one. While the first situation gives itself to more elaborate combinations, when it is a serious fight with real swords one should use only the safest.

The teaching method. Memorisation versus constructivism

Although many treatises for iberian baroque fencing exist in which theory and technique are explained to a greater or lesser degree, we barely have a few references regarding teaching metodology, either in those texts or in tangentially related literary works of the same time.

From the texts which survived we can infer two teaching styles or traditions regarding how fencing teaching should be structured, which we will here call «Regras System» and «Constructivist System». While the former was certainly dominant before Verdadeira Destreza developed, and its last examples would trail on well into the XVIII century (Rodriguez del Canto), it is far less well known than the usual Verdadeira Destreza approach today, so we will dedicate a few lines to introduce it.

The «Regras System» is basically memory-based and case-based, and the best example which survived are the teachings of Destreza Comum masters, either directly in their works (Godinho) or through cross-referencing other authors (mark: Carranza or Pacheco’s critiques to the «rules» as a method).

Regras (in Portuguese; reglas in Spanish, both translating to «rules» in English) were either generic or specific teachings for a given weapon, or for a weapon combination or particular scenario which the teacher would present the student («to fight against two or three opponents», «rule for the sword and rotella», etc) and for which pre-defined solutions were given.

These solutions (regras) are presented, of course, cross-referenced with each other and with other masters’, either consciously or inconsciously, for every author develops its own method, but the basic idea is that they form a set of dogmatic knowledge based on the authority of the Master: for a given X situation, Y is the correct response. From them one might deduce an approach to teaching based in repetition of these situations and exercises, and in constantly returning to the applicable regra for the scenario being studied.

Some authors are vague in describing their regras. This is, for example, the way Thomas Luis uses the term in Lições da Espada Preta. In this meaning of the word the author provides instruction on how to use the sword in a given context, usually expressed as recommendations but without a given, set structure which can be identified. It is worth to mention that Thomsa Luiz uses the term regra, in singular, instead of the plural regas, in the titles of his booklet’s sections. This suggests one might translate, perhaps less literally but in an accurate manner, as «teachings» or «techniques» (hence «teaching of the sword and rotella», «technique to fence against two or three opponents», etc).

Other authors, such as Figueiredo in his Memorial da Prattica do Montante, present more strict and well-defined rules, often with given names («to clear a space»; «bodyguard»; «cape or goods defence», «for a galley gangway», etc.) which were also recorded by other authors (although the movements described are frequently different).These regras are fixed sequences of movements which recall, perhaps, the kata of certain eastern martial arts, designed so that students might repeatedly practice solo until the movements are interiorized. It feels tempting to translate this usage of the word regras as «flourishes» but, unlike these, regras generally (but not always) present specific applications for a given scenario (there is actually one single rule which is described as a floreio, a flourish: in Godinho’s Arte de Esgrima he descrives movements that the master may use to show off, and which are reserved for his practice or for that of advanced students).

Some authors would take an intermediate stance, such as Godinho in Arte de Esgrima, detailing «fixed» regras in parts of their work (for the montante or for doubled rapiers, to name two examples) and «lax» regras elsewhere («regras against treasons», «regras for the left-handed» or even the «three general regras» on which his system is based).

Finally, there are masters such as Figueiredo (Oplosophia, Memorial da Prattica do Montante) who, firmly rooted on Verdadeira Destreza, would use a constructivist approach for all their teachings with the exception of the montante (and the weapons they assimilate to its usage, such as the flail), for which they preserved the old regras system. Figueiredo took care to clarify, however, that the student should not apply those rules mindlessly, but rather use them as a way to learn resources which would be applied to whichever situation may happen, taking and mixing elements from the sequences stablished in the regras to create ad-hoc solutions.

In opposition to this «Regras System» other authors would present what we have called the «Constructivist System», clearly referencing the similarly named contemporary pedagogic school, which is a teaching model which tries to explain to the student the basic principles governing combat, developing their analytic skills and their ability to work out the best solutions for a given scenario, therefore providing a superstructure with which one might resolve, in principle at least, any future situation that may come up, wether well-known or entirely new. This would be, obviously, the approach favoured by Verdadeira Destreza authors (although not all of them, as we will see), who despise the old regras system and the recourse to authority which lies behind them.

Regarding his teaching method, the text where we find most references would be Pacheco’s Modo Fácil y Nuevo, where he proposes a whole structured training program with content presented in the form of questions and answers, following the Socratic method. There are also indications on how much time should be dedicated to training, as well as general informations for the Master. He also included advice on when students should be allowed to fence freely, as opposed to controlled exercises: not too soon, he argues, but rather when they have learned well theory and practice –that is, when they have become dextros–, knowing the fundamentals of fencing and, at least at the beginning, always in presence of the Master, or even just fencing with the Master.

[The regras system applied to the iberian montante and the authors who wrote about it is explored thoroughly in Ton Puey’s article An Overview of the Iberian Montante, which we recommend.]


  • Diálogo Maestro Discípulo (B.Univ.Oviedo)
    MS, 1724?
    (Valle .94)
  • Diaz de Viedma, Luis
    Método de enseñanza de maestros.
    (Valle .96)
  • Ettenhard, Francisco
    Compendio de los fundamentos de la verdadera destreza.
    (Valle .152)
  • Figueiredo, Diogo Gomes de
    Oplosophia e verdadeira destreza das armas (ed. Crítica).
    Santiago de Compostela: AGEA editora, 2013.
    (Valle .159)
  • Firme, Manoel Martins
    Espada firme.
    (Valle .161)
  • Godinho, Domingo Luis
    Arte de Esgrima (Ed. crítica).
    Santiago de Compostela: AGEA Editora, 2015.
    (Valle .188)
  • Lições de Marte. (ed. crítica) [Marte]
    Santiago de Compostela: AGEA editora, 2014
    (Valle .223)
  • Luís, Thomás
    Tratado das lições da espada preta e destreza, que hão de usar os jogadores dela. (Ed.crítica)
    Santiago de Compostela: AGEA/Edizer, 2010.
    (Valle .248)
  • Méndez de Carmona, Luis
    Avisos importantes para el diestro en la esgrima
    (Valle .265)
  • Pacheco de Narváez, Luis
    Libro de las grandezas de la espada
    (Valle .329)
  • Pacheco de Narváez (B.R.A.Historia)
    Principios geométricos y demostraciones matemáticas, conclusiones, máximas y aforismos…
    MS, s.XVII
    (Valle .323)
  • Pacheco de Narváez, Luis
    Modo fácil y nuevo para examinarse los maestros (ed.crítica).
    Santiago de Compostela: AGEA editora, 2011.
    (Valle .336)
  • Pacheco de Narváez, Luis
    Nueva ciencia y filosofía de la destreza de las armas.
    (Valle .345)
  • Pona, Jose de Barros Paiva e Morais
    Compendio dos fundamentos da verdadeira destreza
    MS, 1768
    (Valle .373)
  • Rodríguez del Canto, Diego
    El discípulo instruído y diestro aprovechado en la Ciencia Filosófica y Matematica de la Destreza de las Armas.
    MS, 1735
    (Valle .394)
  • Sánchez de Carranza, Jerónimo
    Libro que trata de la filosofía de las armas y de su destreza.
    (Valle .411)
  • Valle Ortiz, Manuel [Valle]
    Nueva bibliografía de la antígua esgrima y destreza de las armas.
    Santiago de Compostela: AGEA/ Edizer, 2012