The Bolognese school of swordsmanship rose to prominence in Italy during the sixteenth century. The signature weapon of the Bolognese style was the sidesword (although Bolognese masters simply called it a sword). At the same time, the German master Joachim Meyer published a comprehensive fencing treatise which included instruction on what he called the rapier, but what we today would classify as a sidesword.
This article will compare the fencing methods of these two styles to discover their similarities and differences.
First, we’ll compare the building blocks—the postures and basic actions—of each style.
The basic stances in both systems are nearly identical. Neither offers much by way of helpful details concerning how to stand, but both traditions contain illustrations that offer us helpful clues. Overall, Meyer’s stance is wider and lower. Perhaps the most significant difference is that most Bolognese masters allow for either foot to be forward, while Meyer insists that the right (or dominant) always leads.
The Bolognese sidesword tradition often features a grip in which the index finger is wrapped around the true-edge quillon, protected by a finger ring.
Meyer, on the other hand, based on the illustrations in his treatise, seems to only ever use a simple handshake grip, sometimes with the thumb pushed up onto the flat of the blade.
|Straight High Guard|
|Right High Guard||Guardia Alta|
|Left High Guard|
|Guardia di Testa|
|Right Ox||Guardia d’Entrare|
|Left Ox||Guardia di Faccia|
|Right Irongate/Plow||Coda Lunga Stretta|
|Coda Lunga Alta|
|Coda Lunga Distessa|
|Left Irongate/Plow||Porta di Ferro Stretta|
|Porta di Ferro Cinghiali|
|Porta di Ferro Alta|
|Porta di Ferro Distesa|
|Straight Low Guard|
|Right Low Guard||Coda Lunga Larga|
|Left Low Guard||Porta di Ferro Larga|
|Right Middle Guard|
|Left Middle Guard||Guardia di Sopra il Braccio|
|Left Middle Guard||Guardia di Sotto il Braccio|
The selection of guards from each style is similar. Most postures have a rough equivalent, or are mostly just subtle variations on one of the guards in the other system.
There’s certainly room for debate over how I’ve chosen to translate the guards between masters. While many would match right ox with guardia d’alicorno, I’ve chosen to match it with guardia d’entrare instead. This is due to guardia d’entrare’s more forward position, and its symmetry with guardia di faccia, the nearest equivalent to left ox.
Meyer’s left middle guard could conceivably be either one of guardia di sopra il braccio or guardia di sotto il braccio. A high guardia di sopra il braccio could potentially translate into Meyer’s left high guard.
Although Bolognese masters don’t explicitly define a guard like longpoint, that posture does exist in their system, if only because one cannot execute a fully extended cut or thrust without passing through it—and that is exactly the definition of longpoint in Meyer’s system.
To Wait in a Guard or Not?
Meyer makes it clear that you shouldn’t linger in a single guard (except straight parrying or irongate) for any length of time, instead using the guards as checkpoints within strikes or as invitations against timid opponents. The Bolognese, on the other hand, seem to favor settling into a secure guard and not leaving it without reason.
|Increase||Reprising the Feet|
|Triangle Step||Triangle Step|
|Broken/Stolen Step||Raising the Foot|
|Straightening the Leg|
Footwork across the two systems is nearly identical. The major ommission in Meyer’s system is the lack of passing footwork (e.g., full steps, changing steps, traversing steps, etc.). But it should be noted that Meyer’s larger system does includes those steps for the longsword and dussack. With the sidesword, however, the right (or dominant) foot is always forward.
|High Cut||Mandritto Fendente|
|High Cut||Riverso Fendente|
|Wrath Cut||Mandritto Sgualimbro|
|Wrath Cut||Riverso Sgualimbro|
|Middle Cut||Mandritto Tondo|
|Middle Cut||Riverso Tondo|
|Low Cut||Mandritto Ridoppio|
|Low Cut||Riverso Ridoppio|
|Half Wrath Cut||Mezzo Mandritto|
|Middle or Low Thrust||Stoccata|
|Middle or Low Thrust||Punta Riversa|
Meyer’s complete list of cuts is actually more extensive than that of the Bolognese, but that’s slightly misleading. Meyer only defines four broad types of cuts, and the rest are simply named based on the intended target or which edge is used. To keep the comparison table sane, I’ve only listed Meyer’s four main cuts.
While the Bolognese divide cuts based on which side they originate from, Meyer names cuts the same regardless of whether they come from the left or right.
The Bolognese tramazzones can be described in Meyer’s system as a false-edge wrath cut performed with the wrist, followed immediately by a true-edge wrath cut from the same side. One may also compare them to Meyer’s circling or running off.
Both styles treat parries mostly the same. The only real difference is that Meyer gives his parries unique names, while the Bolognese simply describe them using the names of the cuts and the movements of the body.
The following comparison table is a little messy, since Bolognese cuts can correspond to many of Meyer’s parries, and vice versa, depending on where and how they’re used.
|Slicing Off||Mandritto Sgualimbro|
|Slicing Off||Riverso Sgualimbro|
|Taking Out||Falso Dritto|
|Taking Out||Falso Manco|
|Striking Out||Mandritto Tramazzone|
|Striking Out||Riverso Tramazzone|
|Slicing Off||Mezzo Mandritto|
|Setting Off||Punta Riversa|
|Going Through||Mandritto Tramazzone|
|Going Through||Riverso Tramazzone|
Although Meyer’s going through may not be identical to Bolognese tramazzones, they both work by moving to the opposite side of the opponent’s blade before parrying.
The key difference between a tramazzone used as a striking out and a tramazzone used as a going through is timing. When striking out, you parry the opponent’s blade with the first downward twirl of the tramazzone. When going through, you parry at the end of the tramazzone. Of course, going through should be a much tighter motion than a typical tramazzone.
Both styles advise triangle stepping away from the attack while parrying.
Next we’ll compare how the two styles arrange the basic components within their systems. This framework provides a high-level view of the fight.
Overall, Meyer presents a far more detailed and explicit framework than the Bolognese masters, incorporating several elements into his treatise that the Bolognese don’t address:
- The simplified division of the combatant into four openings
- How to respond to different levels of pressure in the bind
- The organization of strikes by intent/purpose
Meyer breaks a fight down according to the distance between two fighters. The onset is the moment when they first come within striking range, the middle is when the they are close enough to hit each other without the aid of footwork, and the withdrawal is when they retreat out of striking range.
The Bolognese break distance down into two modes. Gioco largo is a wide distance where the swords cross at the foible, and combatants favor open guards and sweeping attacks. Gioco stretto is a narrow distance where the swords cross at the middle or forte, and combatants rely on close guards and quick strikes. This distance is also referred to as the straights of the half sword.
While both styles discuss the concept of time in a fight, their approaches are very different.
Meyer’s view of time revolves around the idea of initiative; who is acting first, or before, and who is simply responding, or acting after. One can reverse the roles by acting instantly, or in a narrow moment of opportunity. Alternatively, combatants may act simultaneously, either both fencing as if they were in the before (resulting in a double hit) or in the after (resulting in a stalemate).
The Bolognese concept of time can be thought of as a zoomed-in view of Meyer’s instantly. There are several key moments, or tempi in which one may safely launch an attack.
It should be noted that the applications of several of the tempi are analogous to Meyer’s chasing, a technique for striking an opening while avoiding a bind.
Finally, we’ll compare how each style goes about applying their framework.
Once again, Meyer goes into far more detail, providing:
- A handful of simple rules to guide nearly every stage of the fight
- A detailed breakdown of the types of opponents you might encounter, and how to defeat them
The greatest similarity between the two styles’ tactics is an emphasis on provocation as an opening action, followed by a punishment of the opponent’s reaction to the provocation.
The idea of provoking the opponent to draw them out of a safe position is important in both systems, although the approaches are slightly different.
Meyer calls any action that draws out the opponent a provoker. Once the opponent has taken the bait, Meyer says to take away the opponent’s response with a parry, or taker, as a separate action. Above all, provokers must be deceptive; deception is a central element of Meyer’s strategy.
Bolognese provocations revolve mostly around striking the opponent’s blade. This can be thought of as combining Meyer’s provoker and taker into a single action. Although the Bolognese do describe some deceptive feints, most of their provocations seem to be more about constraining the opponent instead of tricking them.
Once you strip away the differences in terminology and organization, the fencing methods of Joachim Meyer and the Bolognese masters are very similar. Viewed in action, the two styles would, for the most part, be nearly indistinguishable. Most of the differences lie in how the combatant thinks about the fight.
This shouldn’t be very surprising, since Meyer likely learned the sidesword from Italian masters and translated it into the German longsword system.
The greatest observable difference in combat technique would likely be the Bolognese use of passing steps. At a higher, theoretical level, Meyer’s art seems more developed as a complete system. While the Bolognese style does adhere to a system, it isn’t presented as explicitly and thoroughly as Meyer’s.