Walk Like an Agrippan: Part 4 – Stance and Footwork   5 comments

The previous 3 sections (123) of this series on Agrippa have focused on dissecting the framework of the stances and motions found in Agrippa’s fencing manual. Starting with these may have seemed an odd choice, as typically one introduces a fencing system by describing how to perform the basics. However, in my opinion, determining how to stand and move requires that we first understand the types of positions and motions that we will be required to perform.

Therefore, if you have not read the previous posts, please consider doing so before proceeding. It is my intention to provide an explanation of key aspects of the guards shown in Agrippa’s manual and to describe the results of my experimentation in putting those positions and movements into practice.


Key Features of Agrippa’s Guard:

The image above shows the four basic guards found in Agrippa’s manual. These include prima  (A), seconda (B), terza (C), and quarta (D). In the first post I listed a set of shared characteristics that can be seen to be shared by these guards. Here I would like to expand upon those  as well as the differences in both stance and guard, focusing on how they are performed.

The Legs and Feet:

In any fencing style, the legs form a platform that both supports and moves the body. Here we can see that when in guard, (i) the right foot is usually forward, (ii) that the body weight is held nearly exclusively on the front foot, and (iii) that the legs are bent.

As noted previously, there are essentially two stances, wide and narrow. The narrow stance is shown above in A and B. In order to form this stance, the feet are placed relatively close together such that the front foot is pointed towards your opponent. The feet are not parallel, and close attention to the details of A and B would suggest that they are placed at an approximately 45 degree angle from each other. We can also see that in the narrow stances, the heel of the back foot is off the ground. This positioning suggests that nearly all of the body weight is held on the front foot alone. Such a weight placement would make it relatively easy to move into a wide stance by moving the back foot backwards. The wide stance shown above also seems to place the body weight on the front leg. However, Agrippa notes that the wide stance moves the body away from the opponent slightly, which is something I have only been able to accomplish by allowing my weight to shift somewhat onto the back foot (~80% front, 20% back). The back foot in the wide stance also seems to be more firmly placed on the ground, which is consistent with it bearing at least some weight. Moving from a wide stance to a narrow stance is also rather easily accomplished by moving the back foot forward due to the relatively little amount of weight placed upon it. Furthermore, traverse steps (passing steps) can be easily performed with the back foot, ending in either a wide or narrow guard (O or N respectively).

On the other hand, the weight placement makes moving the front foot more difficult. It might be easy to conclude that picking up the front foot requires that the body weight be moved first, however such a technique would be relatively inefficient. However, my experimentation suggests that the front foot can be moved rather quickly forward or backwards from either stance if the appropriate body mechanics are used.

  1. The weight must be placed rather flatly or through the heel of the front foot. In my experimentation, placing the weight forward of the ball of the foot made it impossible to overcome the friction of the ground without launching myself *upwards* first. Likewise, the first motion of the action is to lift the toe.
  2. The pelvis and core must be held as a “rigid frame” in order to give your leg something to push. This will be discussed more in the next section.
  3. Movements are carried out by pushing with the legs. The front leg pushes backwards to move the front foot back (say from wide to narrow stance or past the back foot in a traverse step) and the back leg pushes forwards to move the front foot forwards (from narrow to wide, from wide to wider (“lunge”)). Notably, pushing is different from pulling or flinging, and seeing/feeling the difference for yourself may be difficult at first.


The Body:

It is important to consider that the positioning of the body remains relatively unchanged throughout all of the positions shown by Agrippa. While transitions between wide and narrow stances move the body slightly more forward or backward, the body itself remains in the same position relative to itself. The key feature that is likely the most important innovation in Agrippa’s manual and that underlies the entire Italian rapier system that follows is that the body is held leaning forward from the hips. Agrippa devotes the entirety of chapter 2 to describing how this angle increases the length of a thrust as shown in the accompanying figure shown below.

Figure 6: The advantage of leaning forward

Figure 6: The advantage of leaning forward

This lean makes the stance somewhat difficult to perform and increases the required athleticism substantially. The major pitfall that students will need to overcome is a lack of core strength and engagement which will allow the back to curve. In order to perform this stance correctly, the back must be held straight and the tailbone must be tucked. We can see this in the images, as the backs are straight and this straight line continues into the buttocks. This is indicative of a tucked tailbone, as otherwise, the butt will “stick out.” If a fencer attempts the forward lean without keeping their tailbone tucked, their butt will stick out, their balance will be thrown forward, and it will make it difficult or impossible for the fencer to move as described above.


While we are focused on the body, we can also see that the body is held relatively profiled with the right shoulder forward. In general, this profiling seems less extreme than in later Italian rapier or in modern fencing, however the slight squaring may be due to the use of a dagger. We do see that the body is held in a more extreme profile in a few positions such as D and I. In any case, it is important to also note that the hips and shoulder are aligned vertically. It is a common mistake for fencers to push their left shoulder into profile while leaving their hip squared. This is not what is depicted and leaves the spine awkwardly twisted.

The Arm and Sword:

When we look at the placement of the arms and weapons of the fencers in these images, we can see that in general, the sword points towards the opponent, is somewhat extended, and that is held in-line with the forearm. These characteristics seem to be refinements based on Agrippa’s nearly exclusive focus on the thrust, as this positioning makes it easy to deliver quick, long thrusts. In chapter 3, Agrippa describes how by extending and raising the arm, that the distance of a thrust can be lengthened, illustrating this with figure 7 shown below.

Figure 7: How extending the arm and bending the knee increase distance

Figure 7: How extending the arm and bending the knee increase distance


Agrippa is generally credited with refining fencing to four guards, however, the four guards he describes are identical to guards that were already present in the Bolognese system of fencing where they are roughly equivalent to guardia de alicorno, coda lunga e stretta, porto di ferro e stretta, and guardia de faccia. Furthermore, while Agrippa seems to be the first to call them prima, seconda, terza, and quarta, I would contest that the simplification of fencing to these 4 guards wasn’t particularly new. We see a reduction to these same four guards 30 years earlier in Manciolino’s advice for fencing with the sharp sword, spado da filo. We see them again in Dall’Agocchie’s advice for preparing for a duel in 30 days, published 1 year before Agrippas manual. (EDIT: I got the date switched in my head with Viggiani. Dall’Agocchie was published in the 1570’s, not the 1550’s. However, Viggiani’s guards are both numbered and named, suggesting that applying a numerical system isn’t something super novel in Agrippa’s manual. Also, if we look at the three guardia perfecta shown by Viggiana, we will see that they are ultimately alicorno, porto di ferro e stretta, and coda lunga e stretta from the Bolognese tradition and ultimately mirror Agrippa’s prima, terza, and quarta.) Indeed, we can even see an emphasis on the equivalent guards, ochs and pflug, within the German longsword tradition. Certainly we might give Agrippa credit for stripping away all of the other guards, however, there’s a simple reason for doing so; none of the other guards can be used to deliver a straight thrust.

The formation of these guards is relatively straightforward, Agrippa describes them in chapter 1 as follows:

Prima – The sword is held above the shoulder in the position that a sword would end in first after being drawn from its scabbard. Note that the elbow is not bent, but that there is an angle formed at the wrist such that the sword points at the opponent.

Seconda – According to Agrippa, if the sword is lowered to shoulder height from prima, you will be in seconda. 

Terza – Agrippa notes that from seconda, if you lower your hand towards your knee and move it more to the outside, you will be in terza. 

Quarta – Finally, from terza, if you move your hand to the inside of the knee, you will be in quarta.

It is worth noting that while the pictures show the rotation of the hand from palm to the outside in prima to palm up in quarta (as is the common definition of the four guards in other Italian rapier manuals), Agrippa does not mention this in the text. Furthermore, Agrippa’s placement of quarta on the inside of the right knee is not a requirement for quarta in later rapier manuals, and suggests a closer relationship with the porto di ferro e stretta guard from the Bolognese tradition.

Other notes: The sword arm should be rather relaxed with the elbow pointed downward. Fencers should avoid curling their arm inwards, which can occur either due to tightness in the shoulders or a lack of strength to hold the sword. Thrusts should be delivered by extending the arm smoothly rather than by “punching” with the sword arm. Likewise, motions that combine an extension of the arm with footwork should probably be performed by moving the arm first (though Agrippa is not explicit about this as other fencing manuals are).

Posted December 1, 2015 by Gawin in Italian Rapier

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