This is the second part of a series of posts about La Verdadera Destreza, the Spanish rapier style, as I practice it. See part 1 in the series for some background.
One of the central, and most misunderstood, features of Destreza is the “Spanish circle”. It looks complicated and mysterious, and in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries many people would have considered it magical. All of this contributed to Destreza’s reputation as being abstruse and academic, but in fact the circle is a very practical training tool. It is simply a diagram, drawn out on the ground, of various possible movements, attacks, and defenses that one might execute.
The first thing you must understand about the circle is that it exists in the mind of the fencer. One does not fight in the circle, that would be ridiculous. One trains in the circle, until the dimensions and angles of the circle are engraved indelibly in the mind and muscles of the fencer, and one no longer needs to think in order to step out at the right angle and strike at the proper distance.
Being a construct in the fencer’s mind, the circle can move whenever it is convenient for it to do so. In practice, it is usually convenient to think of the circle as remaining stationary during an exchange, and resetting whenever there is a pause in the action or the fencers return to guard. One therefore starts at one end of the circle, and (potentially) walks across the circle during the action, and returns to one’s starting point (by resetting the circle) whenever it is convenient to do so.
The second thing you must understand about the circle is that it is specific to a given fencer. In my school, the diameter of the circle is defined to be one step plus an extended arm. This means that it depends upon the fencer’s height and build, and also upon the length of their sword. A longer sword results in a larger circle, which requires longer steps; thus, it is important that the sword length be well-matched to the fencer’s height and style of movement.
There are many variations of the circle. Originally, the circle was simply that – a circle, illustrating the space between the two fencers where action might occur. Soon, the diameter line was added, showing the line of engagement between the fencers; this is a crucial concept in Destreza, where most techniques involve leaving this line. Later, further embellishments were added, showing other angles and distances. This reached its extreme with Thibault’s circle from Academie de l’Espée, which shows extraordinary complexity:
The circle used by my school is somewhat simpler:
The diestro stands at one of the cardinal points on the circle, by convention at the bottom when the circle is illustrated in this way. His opponent stands directly opposite on the circle, at the top, with the vertical diameter line joining them. This line, the line of engagement, is commonly referred to as “the diameter”, despite being one of eight diameter lines on the circle.
There are three sets of eight lines on the circle: the diameters, the obliques, and the chords:
With that established, let us look at a simple Spanish technique. We will illustrate the fencers’ positions using footprints and swords (since my art skills are down there with my Spanish) – green for the diestro, and red for his opponent. The numbers on the footprints indicate the order of the step – “1” means the foot moves first, and “2” moves second. Since Destreza was designed primarily to work against the Italian and French schools, most techniques begin with a counter against a straight attack down the diameter:
Note that the diestro in this example is in a “hanging guard” – that is, he is standing with his point in front of his left hip and his hilt in front of his left shoulder, with the sword angled out towards the opponent. This is a compromise between the historical “right angle guard” (with the sword pointing straight out from the shoulder) and an angled guard such as the French or Italian guards. It provides a greater defense without losing too much of the reach advantage of the right angle guard.
In response to the straight attack, the diestro steps with his left foot to point B (this is known as a transverse left step). Due to the turn inwards, the sword ends up on the diameter with no (or minimal) change in arm position, closing the line:
With a short step along the oblique to point F, the diestro then drives his sword in along the diameter. This is a very difficult attack to defend against, first because it starts so close, but also because even if it is successfully parried, it is very easy for the diestro to angle his sword out to the left and strike around the parry.
There are a few things to note about this technique. First, at no time was the diestro in any danger of being struck. When the attack came in, he performed a double defense – leaving the line, and interposing his sword. Either of these would have sufficed to defend against the attack. If the attacker was able to counter the diestro‘s attack successfully, the diestro could always retreat back along the line of the oblique without ever being exposed to an attack.
Second, note the use of the circle to shape the technique. By training on the circle, the diestro has learned that by stepping to point B, he can remove himself from the line of the attack, close the line, and simultaneously set up a counterattack, all with a minimum of motion. The circle also tells him the range at which he can respond to the original attack, and the range of his counter.
Next time, we’ll codify the footwork, and look at range issues.