Skip to Content

Thibault’s Academy of the Sword: A Variation on Spanish Rapier Combat

Introduction

Girard Thibault d’Anvers was a Dutch swordmaster in the 1600s. After first learning swordplay in the Netherlands, he traveled to Spain where he studied the Spanish rapier system of La Verdadera Destreza. He made several modifications to that system, then returned to the Netherlands and proved the worth of his variant style in a series of demonstrations against a variety of opponents.

La Verdadera Destreza is radically different from nearly every other European sword art, and within that system, Thibault is himself a weird outlier. Yet in spite of a few surface-level changes (e.g., changes to the grip and the exact angle of the lead foot), the core of the system remains intact. Thibault wasn’t much for naming things, opting instead for lengthy and exacting descriptions; but much of what he describes without naming is codified within canonical Destreza sources.

For example, Thibault provides precise instructions on where to place your feet. If you map those instructions to his circle, then compare that circle to those found in mainstream Destreza treatises, you’ll find that the vast majority of Thibault’s footwork is transverse steps. Similarly, Thibault frequently talks about bringing your sword over top of the opponent’s and subjecting it with a little superiority. This is simply a procedural description of an atajo.

This article is not meant to be an exhaustive treatment of Thibault’s style. It is instead my attempt to distill the techniques Thibault describes into a manageable summary.

The Circle

The foundation of Thibault’s system is his mysterious circle, although there’s nothing mysterious about it. It is merely a teaching aid placed on the training floor, sized according the the individual fencer, that provides checkpionts for many of the actions within the system.

A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Thibault’s Mysterious Circle

The circle’s radius (from point C to the center) should be equal to the length of your blade (from the quillons to the point), and your blade should be equal to your height from the soles of your feet to your naval. As such, the size of the above diagram will be slightly different for each fencer. For an average six-foot-tall man, the circle’s diameter (the line CX) would be about seven feet.

At the start of a duel, opponents stand on opposite corners. By convention, you are placed in corner A, and your opponent is placed in corner Z.

Arrangement of the Fencer

Thibault goes to great pains to describe exactly how a fencer should arrange themself in a duel. This arrangement serves as a base from which all techniques are performed.

Grip

Thibault uses two different grips. The first, which I will call the standard grip, is the default used in most actions:

  • Quillons are horizontal
  • Index finger is wrapped around the true-edge quillon
  • Thumb rests on top of the false-edge quillon
  • Other fingers are wrapped around the handle in a firm but relaxed fashion
  • Sword is canted forward in the hand, placing the pommel within the wrist and forming a straight line with the forearm

The second grip, which I will call the cutting grip, is formed thus:

  1. Start in the standard grip
  2. Move your thumb underneath the false-edge quillon
  3. Allow the sword to rotate 90° clockwise so that the quillons are vertical with the true edge down

The Posture of the Straight Line

Thibault’s system includes only a single guard position, called the posture of the straight line.

  • Place the left foot along the line A (also called the foot line), pointing to your left
  • Place the right foot along the line BC, with the toe at point C and the heel to the right of the diameter
  • Knees are aligned with their respective toes
  • Knees are straight, but relaxed
  • Weight is balanced between the feet
  • Hips and shoulders are turned 90° to the left, aligned along the line AC, in perfect profile to the opponent
  • Torso is straight
  • Shoulders are relaxed, allowed to settle back and down
  • Left arm hangs straight down by the side
  • Right hand grips the sword
  • Right arm extends straight out from your shoulder, directly along the diameter toward the opponent
  • Head is upright, facing the opponent
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Foot Position for the Posture of the Straight Line

This guard maximizes your reach, but more importantly it optimizes your defense according to natural body mechanics. Your profiled posture completely hides your body behind the hilt of your sword without compromising your balance. It also works together with your grip to equalize the amount of force you can exert on either side of your blade. By way of contrast, the more traditional postures found in other systems exert more force to the fencer’s right and in the direction of the true edge.

Thibault’s posture of the straight line is ideal against fencers of the same size and in a similar stance. If your opponent is taller or shorter than you, or adopts a different posture, the following generalized rules should be observed:

  • Your point must extend straight toward the closest target
  • Your hilt must cover the closest target
  • As a result, your blade should generally be parallel to the opponent’s

Although Thibault regards this as the best possible guard, he warns that one should not simply stand in it waiting for the opponent to attack. You should always be moving, and you should almost never have both feet planted on the ground at the same time. Thibault claims that this keeps you agile, able to more quickly react to the opponent’s actions at a moment’s notice.

Important Concepts

Instances

Thibault divides the space between fencers into three distances, which he calls instances. The definitions below assume you are facing an opponent of equal height and reach who stands at point X. Both of you are in the posture of the straight line.

First Instance
This is the distance at which your point reaches the opponent’s hilt, and you can touch the opponent’s torso with the aid of a step. It is a defensive distance that gives you enough time to recognize and react to threats. You enter this instance by stepping to point C.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Second Instance
This is the distance at which your point reaches the opponent’s elbow. You can touch—but not wound—the opponent’s torso by leaning forward. The purpose of this instance is to act as a transition point; after beginning to close with the opponent, you decide to commit to an attack or retreat. You enter this instance by stepping to one of the points E or G.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Third Instance
This is the distance at which your point reaches the opponent’s torso, which you can wound by simply extending your arm. It is here that you end a fight by either striking or disarming the opponent. You enter this instance by stepping to one of the points H or N.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z

Note that the difference between each instance is about half an arm’s length, which also happens to be the length of a natural step.

Degrees of Strength

Thibault divides the sword blade into twelve segments called the degrees of strength. These segments are numbered from one at the point to twelve at the hilt.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Degrees of Strength

When two swords meet in a bind, look at where they cross each other. The sword with the higher degree of strength at that point has a leverage advantage and can control the other.

Sentiment

Sentiment is the amount of pressure exerted by the opposing sword in a bind. Thibault quantifies this pressure into nine magnitudes, which he defines by the reaction of the opposing sword once the pressure is released (i.e., how far the opposing blade jumps when you stop resisting and take your own sword out of the way).

In each of the following definitions, assume that the swords begin crossed over one of the points M on the circle, with your own sword closer to the center.

Dead
The opposing blade offers no resistance, and does not react when opposition is removed.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Sentiment
The opposing sword jumps to the nearest point L when opposition is removed.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Alive
The opposing sword jumps to the diameter when opposition is removed.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Lively
The opposing sword jumps to halfway between the diameter and the farthest point L when opposition is removed.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Livelier
The opposing sword jumps to the farthest point L when opposition is removed.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Liveliest
The opposing sword jumps to halfway between the farthest points L and M when opposition is removed.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Strong
The opposing sword jumps to the farthest point M when opposition is removed.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Stronger
The opposing sword jumps to halfway between the farthest points M and N when opposition is removed.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
Strongest
The opposing sword jumps to the farthest point N when opposition is removed.
A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z

Thibault wants fencers to practice identifying sentiment from the bind until they can reliably predict how far the opposing sword will jump when the pressure is released. Good sensitivity to sentiment allows one to react faster to the opponent’s actions than if they relied on sight alone.

Techniques

Techniques are the basic actions that make up Thibault’s system. Individual techniques may be combined to achieve certain ends, but that will be covered later under tactics.

Footwork

One of the most bizarre aspects of Thibault’s system is his footwork. Steps are performed thus:

  1. Lift your leg from the hip, keeping both knees straight
  2. Point the toes of your raised foot in the direction of the step, which is never directly toward the opponent
  3. Shift your weight in the direction of the step
  4. Allow yourself to fall into place, which should be about half an arm’s length from your original position
  5. For extra range and power, bend your lead knee as the foot lands, resulting in a lunge-like position
  6. If necessary, allow the trailing leg to be pulled along by the action

As noted above, steps are never taken directly toward the opponent. Instead, Thibault opts for an angular approach, as shown below (the opponent stands over the line XZ):

A B B C D D E F F G G H I I K K L L M M N N O O P P Q Q R S S T T V W W X Y Y Z
A Typical Advance

Note that each “resting point” in the above animation corresponds to one of the three instances.

Attacks

Thibault defines four types of attacks:

Estocade
A thrust, usually delivered with a straight arm, such that the line of attack can be traced back to your body
Imbrocade
A thrust delivered with a curved arm, such that the line of attack cannot be traced back to your body
Estramason
A forehand cut from your right
Reverse
A backhand cut from your left

Pauses

One of the more unique aspects of Thibault’s system is the way he builds pauses into his actions. Pauses give you a chance to reevaluate the situation and decide if you want to commit or change course. There are several specific moments when Thibault advises pausing:

  • After lifting your foot
  • Before putting your foot down
  • After making blade contact

Thibault says the most dangerous time is after you’ve started putting your foot down. Because of how Thibault falls into his steps, you cannot interrupt that action once it has started. Therefore, the pause just before completing a step is especially critical.

Graduation & Degraduation

A sword’s degree of strength in a bind may be altered in one of the following ways:

Graduation
Increasing the degree of strength by sliding the crossing closer to the hilt
Degraduation
Decreasing the degree of strength by sliding the crossing closer to the point

If you violently degraduate the opponent’s sword (perform the slide with a quick, sweeping action), the rapid change in degrees of strength can throw their weapon out of position, giving you an opening.

Subjection

Subjection is a way to control the opposing blade. It is performed thus:

  1. With an arcing motion of the wrist, cross your sword over top of the opponent’s such that you have the greater degree of strength
  2. Direct your point toward the opponent’s blade (away from the center)
  3. Apply just enough pressure to keep the opponent’s blade trapped

Obligation

Sometimes you’ll find your own blade trapped underneath the opponent’s. In that scenario, you can employ obligation. Obligation is similar to subjection, but you apply upward pressure from below instead of downward pressure from above. You use obligation to carry the opponent’s sword in an arcing or spiraling path to gain an advantageous position.

Disengagement

Disengagement is a technique to escape the bind and gain a more favorable position. From the bind, drop your point underneath the opponent’s blade and bring it back up on the other side. This is most commonly done with your sword extended out in front of you, but it can also be done with your sword extended out to the side or even behind you. This latter scenario often occurs after you’ve used the bind to close the distance so aggressively that you’ve moved past the opponent’s point.

Thibault generally considers disengagements to be dangerous; the circular motion gives the opponent time to perform an estocade without any opposition. However, good use of sentiment can turn disengagements into a deadly tool. If you feel that the opponent is exerting too much pressure on your sword, a quick disengagement will release that pressure, causing the opposing blade to leap out of position.

Because of this, it is generally safest to use just enough sentiment to keep the blades where they are. However, you can also turn the bind into a subtle battle of wits by increasing your sentiment, thereby feigning an attempt to push through the opponent’s defense. If they respond by increasing their own sentiment, you can disengage and thrust while they scramble to recover. But be careful; by increasing your sentiment, you give the opponent the chance to do the same to you!

Bracing

Thibault generally maintains a straight sword arm. However, there are instances when he advises tucking your elbow against the side of your body; this is called bracing.

Bracing is useful in two scenarios:

  • You need to apply a lot of pressure to the opponent’s sword, either in defense or to clear the way for an attack
  • You need to shorten the length of your blade in order to strike in close quarters

Voltes

Voltes are perhaps the most controversial aspect of Thibault’s style. In practice, they appear as flashy spins that expose your back to the opponent. In actuality, they are carefully calculated maneuvers that can be used to devastating effect.

First, one must note the scenarios in which Thibault uses voltes:

  • When parrying imbrocades
  • When caught in an exceptionally high bind
  • When resisting strong sentiment
  • When you have passed behind the opponent and need to reorient yourself

The volte is performed by passing your left foot forward and behind your right, turning your body 180° so that your back is to the opponent, while simultaneously bringing you closer. Make sure to keep your head turned toward the opponent as long as possible so you can see how they react.

Although volting seems risky, it actually provides several advantages in the situations listed above:

  • It increases your strength in the bind to your left (by turning your left into your right)
  • It moves your left side off the line of attack
  • It brings your body past the opponent’s point

These advantages make volting a safe and effective option in the right circumstances. Once you’ve performed a volte, you can continue the spinning motion to deliver an attack.

Tactics

Tactics are how Thibault uses the techniques of his system to achieve specific ends.

Overall Strategy

At a high level, Thibault’s strategic framework looks like this:

  1. Approach the opponent and come on guard at the first instance
  2. Bind the opponent’s sword and enter the second instance by stepping offline, most often along one of the lines CN
  3. Is it safe to continue?
    • If yes, commit to the third instance (still stepping offline) and attack
    • If no, parry, and either:
      • Retreat to the first instance and start over
      • Step offline and check again

It must be noted that Thibault’s method is slow. His manner of stepping is not conducive to quick footwork like that found in modern sport fencing, and the pauses he builds into his techniques mean you never rush into a fight. This may be a weakness of the system, but in return you gain several advantages. You are more able to observe and respond, rather than just reacting on instinct. If an action becomes unsafe, you can easily abort in favor of a different approach. A heavy emphasis on the bind and the use of sentiment to predict the opponent’s intentions renders lightning speed largely unnecessary. If you also possess a good sense of combat timing and distance, Thibault’s defensive focus can make you nigh untouchable.

The Approach

Most historical sources begin their instructions at the moment combatants are within striking distance. Thibault, on the other hand, provides explicit directions for how to approach prior to that moment. In short: it doesn’t matter, as long as you are in the posture of the straight line the moment you reach the first instance. Until then, you may step and carry your sword in whatever way is most comfortable for you. You shouldn’t make your approach in posture, however, since it would unnecessarily tire you before the fight has even begun, as well as telegraph some of your intentions to the opponent.

Parrying Estocades

The most straightforward method of defending against the opponent’s estocades is to subject their weapon by placing your blade’s 8 over top of their 3–5. This placement gives you the leverage advantage without crossing too close to the opponent’s point; if you cross too close to the point, the opponent can easily escape the subjection by disengaging.

Once you’ve subjected the opponent, you can counterattack from the bind in whatever manner is most convenient—usually an estocade at their face or body. This should be done while maintaining pressure on their blade and advancing to the third instance. This combination of pressure and forward movement will force their weapon out of the way. You should end with your hilt crashing against their blade, forcing their sword into a nearly vertical position from which it is impossible for them to attack you.

Parrying Imbrocades

Imbrocades can be a little tricker to parry than estocades. Subjection can work, but imbrocades are often delivered from a higher angle, which makes subjection more difficult. Also, a clever opponent can use the curved nature of the imbrocade to thrust around your subjection.

Thibault provides the following template for dealing with imbrocades:

  1. The opponent performs an imbrocade at your left side
  2. You parry
  3. The opponent thrusts in around your blade
  4. You raise your hilt into a palm-up position; this carries the opposing sword away and creates a point of rotation
  5. You perform a volte around the aforementioned point of rotation, keeping the opponent’s sword trapped on your hilt
  6. The volte has secured your defense, but now you must counterattack; the fastest way is to complete the turn
  7. You sweep your blade downward as you spin, simultaneously throwing the opponent’s sword out of position
  8. As you face the opponent, you brace your arm against your body to shorten your reach, allowing you to perform an estocade in close quarters
  9. The momentum of your spin delivers the estocade; you may optionally place your left hand against your blade for improved accuracy

Parrying Cuts

Thibault has a unique method for defending against cuts. Rather than stop the cut in its tracks, Thibault catches and redirects the momentum, ending in a superior position that allows the fencer to control the opponent’s sword.

  1. As the cut begins, before it has gained momentum, place your blade’s 2 over top of the opponent’s 12
  2. As the cut descends, graduate your blade while simultaneously degraduating the opponent’s, shifting both weapons to your left or right as appropriate
  3. End with blades crossed near waist level in a position of subjection, with the opponent’s sword trapped underneath your hilt
  4. From there, counterattack in the most convenient manner

Defending Against Feints

Thibault doesn’t advise performing feints, but offers counters to those performed by the opponent. He lists four types of feints, based on the opponent’s level of commitment, as measured by how far their point advances toward you:

  1. Right foot lifts, point does not pass your quillons, no forward movement
  2. Body leans forward, point reaches your wrist
  3. Body leans forward, point reaches the middle of your forearm
  4. Body leans forward, point reaches your elbow

As a rule of thumb, you should ignore feints completely; by definition, they aren’t threats. However, it can be difficult to distinguish a feint from a true attack. Therefore, as the opponent’s level of commitment to the feint increases, so too does your level of alertness.

Since a type 1 feint never passes the first instance, it requires no reaction.

A type 2 feint moves beyond the first instance, but doesn’t reach the second. It’s still not much of a threat, but you must be ready in case the opponent continues to advance. Simply ready your body for action and subtly raise your point toward the opponent’s blade in preparation for a subjection.

A type 3 feint is the most aggressive the opponent should be allowed to make without being attacked in response. They still have not quite entered the second instance, but they are getting dangerously close. Your reaction should be the same as for a type 2 feint, but more pronounced. You should be able to subject the opposing blade at a moment’s notice.

Finally, a type 4 feint should no longer be treated as a feint. If the opponent gets any farther than this, and it turns out not to be a feint, you won’t be able to defend in time. Therefore you must treat it as a true attack. Complete the subjection begun in the previous feints and perform an estocade to the opponent’s face. Note that as you advance to attack, you must step offline to avoid impaling yourself on the opponent’s sword.

The Bind

Thibault wants you to gain the bind as soon as possible and maintain it for as long as is practical. This is because the bind allows you to use sentiment to predict and control the opponent’s actions. Once you’ve used the bind to secure your safety, you can launch an attack based on how the opponent reacts. Analyzing the many operations that Thibault describes throughout his book, certain patterns emerge based on the opponent’s level of sentiment.

If the opponent binds with weak sentiment (e.g., dead, sentiment, alive), simply subjugate and attack. If the opponent attempts to escape the subjection in order to counterattack, they will be struck first due to the longer execution time required for a disengagement. Note that this is always an option, even against higher levels of sentiment, as long as you can graduate your sword (and/or degraduate the opponent’s) enough to gain the leverage advantage and keep their point offline. It is simply easier to maintain subjugation against a weak opponent.

If the opponent binds with moderate sentiment (e.g., lively, livelier, liveliest), let them push you aside slightly and imbrocade around their sword. You launch the imbrocade during their parry, so they have no chance to counterattack. This may also be an option against higher levels of sentiment.

If the opponent binds with strong sentiment (e.g., strong, stronger, strongest), disengage and attack. Their own strength throws them out of position, giving you time to strike without fear of reprisal. There are many variations on this particular tactic:

  • Disengage into an estocade
  • Volte, then disengage into an attack of your choice
  • Advance past the opponent, disengaging into a cut as you do so

If the opponent changes to dead sentiment from any higher level of sentiment, estocade. The change in sentiment means they are attempting to disengage and attack, which is a longer action than a direct thrust; therefore, your attack will land first.

Followup Attacks

After striking the opponent, Thibault often advises performing one or more additional attacks. These aren’t displays of barbarity, but rather extremely practical (and in some cases, necessary) steps to ensure your victory and safety.

When your initial strike is an estocade, Thibault says to drive the sword in up to the hilt. This brings you in so close to the opponent that they can’t possibly retaliate with their blade, thereby keeping you safe.

When your initial strike is a cut, Thibault frequently says to follow up with either an estocade (in which case, see above) or another cut. Cuts with a rapier, while damaging, are not nearly as effective as with other, more cut-oriented swords. The opponent may be able to shrug off a single rapier cut and retaliate.

Resources

  • Academy of the Sword by Girard Thibault d’Anvers, translated by John Michael Greer