Notes on the Incorrect Use of the Word "Sparring" in Western Swordsmanship

Sparring, one of the terms in common usage today, is very annoying because it creates a distorted modern view of how training should be perceived and conducted. The use of the word "spar" completely obscures any attempt to understand the frame of reference of the swordsmen, fencers, warriors or combatants of the past which is key in gaining knowledge of how weapons and practice weapons were used. To further elaborate on the inappropriate use of the word "spar" and/or "sparring," I summit the following:

For the earlier periods of the Renaissance and Medieval eras the terms (which are found in Spanish and Portuguese texts of the period) "ensayo" or "ensayar" meaning "rehearse" or "practice." There has also been misuse of terminology from the medieval period. One of the most blatant examples is the term "pas d'armes." "Pas d'armes" has been used to describe weapons practice when in reality the true meaning of the term has absolutely nothing to do with training or practice. A "pas d'armes" is an elaborate ritualized form of combat which was done in the fifteenth century that involved staging, acting, and a storyline that put the combat within a context. A single challenger declared his intention to defend a narrow pass such as a bridge which was depicted in the set up of the scenery or represented by the lists themselves. The challenger would defend this area against all comers. The term (Assalto)"Assault" is used by Achille Marozzo in his 1536 treatise "Opera Nova" for the practice of specific techniques in the form of prescribed sequences.

In the 16th and the 17th centuries the Italian term for sword-practice were "L'Esercizio della Spada" (the exercise of the sword) and "Esercizio di Armi" (exercise of arms, for general weapons practice). Both these terms were used to describe training and practice. In 17th century France, the term was "l'Exercise des Armes" meaning the same thing as the Italian term "Esercizion di Armi." In addition, in the 17th century the term "assault" was used in reference to the actual practice of fencing within the schools. Liancour mentions the "assault" in his treatise of 1686. Although he does not mention exactly what the assault is he gives us an indication by telling us "that the foil used for practice is lighter than the foil used for the assault.”

William Hope, who also wrote in the late 17th century, used the term "assault" and devoted an entire treatise to the practice of the "assault" in the school. The title of his book was "The Fencing Master's Advice To His Scholar: Or A Few Directions For the more Regular Assaulting in Schools," published in 1692. Another 17th century master, Monsieur Labbat, used the term "assault" to clearly differentiate actual fencing from the lessons. "Lessons and Assaults are only valuable when the Application and Genius make them so," he wrote. "A natural Disposition and Practice are necessary in the Lessons, but in Assaults there must be Genius besides. . . The Goodness of the Lessons and of Assaults does not consist so much in the Length as in the Manner of them." [Labbat 1696 (English translation by Andrew Mahon 1734).]

The term "assault" continued to be used into the modern era in France, Italy, Spain and England. For example, in the Italian schools the term "assalto" was used in the writings of Rosaroll Scorza and Pietro Grisetti (1803). "The assault is the execution of all of the principles of the art of arms between the combatants, and presents the true image of a combat," wrote the Spanish master Eudaldo Thomas in 1823 (my own translation of the original). "The assault is the practical application of the lessons. It is the image of combat," agreed the French master Camille Prevost in 1891 (My own interpretation of the original). "In the assault a fencer must depend entirely on himself; he must tax his imagination and resources to the utmost, as all of the details of the lesson find their application here. They are of course to be applied as circumstances demand. He must use to his own profit, and in every instance possible take advantage of, his adversary's faults and errors," said another French master, Louis Rondelle, in his English-language treatise of 1892. The same in England: "The assault, or "loose play," is the exact imitation of a combat with real swords, in which the opponents bring into use, as occasion may demand, all of the manouevres which the master has imparted to them in the lessons on the plastron, and into it no movement ought to be attempted which would be attended with too much risk were the point sharp," wrote Captain Alfred Hutton in 1898

We can see that the term "assault" had the same meaning from the late 17th century into the early 20th century: an encounter between two fencers in which all of the art, science and skill that has been learned is brought into use to demonstrate mastery and superior swordsmanship. It is where fencers put into practice the lessons that they had learned for the purpose of besting the opponent. However, it was never “anything goes”; in the schools of arms there were codes of rules that were enforced which regulated assaults.

The modern definition of "assault" is a friendly encounter between two fencers in which any hits are not officially counted. A "bout," meanwhile, is an encounter between two fencers in which the hits are counted as part of a competition.

Now let us take an even closer look at the term "sparring." In the Badminton Library’s 1893 volume on "Fencing, Boxing and Wrestling," in the chapter entitled "Boxing and Sparring," the author distinguishes between the two activities. The latter is done with protective gloves, and the former is done bare knuckle, which, the author states, is true boxing. It can be observed from this that it is clear that there is specific meaning to the word "spar," which was accepted and understood in that era.

So, too, today: My late father was a boxer (active in the late 1920s and early 1930s), and I have several acquaintances who have boxed and who continue to box. I have asked them just what is the exact meaning of "sparring." All have answered in pretty much the same manner: In "sparring," the boxer or fighter is not attempting to defeat his opponent, he but in fact working on perfecting a certain type(s) of technique(s) that is part of his overall repertoire. This is one of the reasons that prize fighters work with a variety of "sparring partners," because each presents a difficulty that the fighter must learn to overcome by working a specific technique over and over again. In "sparring sessions,” both of the participants are not working at all-out speed or power, but on refined execution and honing of skills. These sessions are not "bouts" in which they called on all their accumulated skill.

"Sparring" had always meant the practice of pugilism until the advent of the popularity of Oriental Martial Arts (OMA) that began in the 1960s and really came into their own with Bruce Lee's celebrity in the 1970s. The OMA, not really having an equivalent term that translated well into English, borrowed the term "sparring" to describe the type of practice that Westerners following OMA engaged in, taking within its meaning not only pugilism but also the practices of many other of the OMA, including weapons practice. In this venue, somewhere along the way in the assimilation of the OMA into Western culture, the term "sparring" became misused and came to have the meaning of engaging in fighting sessions.

Unfortunately, this distorted conception of what "sparring" is has been introduced into European fencing and swordsmanship. It has been my observation that this misconception has been reinforced by many who began their martial arts practice in the Oriental Martial Arts (as taught and practiced in the West), and who are now engaged in European martial arts of the medieval era, the Renaissance, and later periods. These individuals, whether by intent or ignorance, have brought a frame of reference into European Martial Arts that does not fit in with traditional Western practices mentally, psychologically, philosophically or spiritually. This is where the real danger is, in that if those who practice European swordsmanship and fencing do not wake up, the mutant that will emerge will be a distorted hodge-podge of ideas, teaching and training practices that will bear little if any resemblance of what I hope all of us involved in historical and traditional classical fencing are working toward preserving and resurrecting.

There are much more historically and traditionally appropriate terms that should and must be used. As I have already mentioned, the term "sparring" has been used in late 18th and early 19th century texts on pugilism, but swordsmanship/fencing, and pugilism are not the same thing. Let us take a closer look at the exact definition of "sparring":

spar: sparred, spar-ring, 1. (of boxers) to make motions of attack and defense with the arms and fists, esp. as a part of training. 2. to box, esp. with light blows. (*Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary Of The English Language 1996.)

As can be clearly seen, the term "sparring" is not the same, nor does it have the same connotations as, the term "assault," and is therefore inappropriate to use in reference to swordsmanship or fencing. There have been, and still are, appropriate terms:

“ ‘Scaramouch’: A late fourteenth-century term for encounters between groups of soldiers, which has come down to us as ‘skirmish.’ The French ‘escaramouche,’ from which was created the Middle English ‘scarmuche,’ a fencing engagement, was spawned by the Italian ‘scaramuccia.’ (From “Forgotten English,” by Jeffery Karcirk 1997.)

ITALIAN: The Italian word "schermo" means “screen; protection; shield, to use as protection; to ward off a blow with ones hands.” The word "scherma" means “fencing”; it is a derivative of the word "schermo." It is plain to see that "fencing" is defense or protection. "scaramuccia" means “skirmish.” It is also a derivative of "schermo."

OLD FRENCH: “Eskermir, eskermir, eskermiss—to fight with a sword, fence, from “skarmush,” from Old French.
“Eskarmouch” comes from Old Italian “scarmuccia,” of German origin. [The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 3rd, Edition.1992.]

ENGLISH: “Skirmish”: 2. Any brisk conflict or encounter. 3. To engage in a skirmish [c. 1300-50]. From the Middle English “skirmysshe”; Old French “eskirmiss” from the Germanic “eskirmir” (similar to the Old High German “skirman”). Middle English “scaramouch" from “escaramoucher.” Late Middle English “scaramuchen,” “scamusshen” (“to skirmish”), Middle English “skirmisshen” (“to brandish a weapon”) from the Old French “escar(o)mucher.”

[Taken from “Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language,” 1996.]

So far we have looked at fencing terminology in four European languages from the fourteenth century to the twentieth—over 600 years of history—in which the term "spar" or "sparring" for the practice of swordsmanship or fencing does not appear. In a school of arms a student would be taught all of the technical aspects of fencing, covering the weapon, its handling, stance, footwork, cutting, thrusting, attack, defense, counter offence, distance, timing, etc. All of this would be learned by working directly with the master. This would then be followed up by the practice of drills involving thrusting, cutting, or both. These are done on a target either in a distance in which these actions can be done stationary or involving varied footwork and distance. Then, specific sequences prescribed by the master would be practiced, ideally with a more experienced person. This would be followed up with an introduction into the "assault," working directly with the master. After a lengthy period of this type of training the student would be permitted to engage in supervised fencing with more experienced persons, then with equally skilled, and finally with less skilled opponents. If, after this time, the student demonstrated adequate assimilation of the instruction imparted (which includes tactics and strategy), he would then be permitted to engage in the "assault" (or what has been termed "loose play" or "free fencing") without the constant supervision of the master. To reach this level of proficiency may take years of constant endeavor. The fact that the highly specialized safety equipment that is in use today was not available in the past demonstrates clearly why exact training and practice was the essential foundation for competency—let alone mastery.

Instead of the word "spar" or "sparring," it is correct to say "fencing," "assault," "exercise of arms," "practicing," or even "skirmishing," as these terms all have historical precedence. To sum up, the term "to spar" or "sparring" is incorrect, misused, has no historical precedence, and does not describe what is being done—which in turn leads to negative, incorrect connotations in today's practice of classical or historical fencing.

All involved in European Martial Arts, especially in European swordsmanship and traditional fencing, must at all costs avoid bringing into our respective practices incorrect use of terminology and philosophy that leads to an inappropriate mindset. Otherwise, we will perpetuating the image and character of what has become known as "the marital artist bully-boy chest-beating board-breaker," who is also shunned by all who practice the Oriental Martial Arts in a traditional manner. I urge everyone to kill this monster in its infancy before it contaminates our beloved art and science.

Swordsmanship/fencing and the study of weapons and combat has, for centuries, been called the "Noble Science." It should not be allowed to be debased by those who can not, or choose not, to rise to the art and science. Traditions are to be upheld and not looked at with contempt.

"I hold that the principal and true profession of the Courtier must be that at arms; which I wish him to exercise with
vigor; and let him be known among others as bold, energetic, and faithful to whomever he serves."

—Baldesar Castiglione, "The Book of the Courtier." (1516)