There’s something that’s been bothering me about historical fencing for a while. I’ve been having a lot of problems with the term “guard.” In theory a guard is any position your body and sword take to defend yourself. There are complexities within that definition and some people have their own different definitions. For example, one interpreter of the medieval I.33 system stated that there were no guards present in the style, because you were never supposed to stand stationary to protect yourself in any particular position. One of my own instructors once made the ridiculous claim that any position you can hold your sword in is a guard, but it is only a “good guard” if it serves to protect you. Ignoring the fact that if every position is a guard then the entire concept of guard becomes useless, some refining to the term is clearly needed.
The problem arises particularly in the older fight manuals. Roughly around 16th century most guard positions became stances that clearly and obviously protected the whole or part of the body. Go back a ways, however and the purpose of each guard becomes a little more vague. For example, the following position doesn’t appear to actually protect anything in particular, but it is nevertheless we can call it a guard because you can easily move to defend yourself.
Fiore De’i Liberi actually refers to three different kinds of “posta” which we can roughly translate into “guard.” This first one is a “Pulsativa” guard. which seems to be based off the Latin word for “Smiting.” He also has “Stabile” and “Instabile” guards, which directly translated means “Stable” and “Unstable.” In doing research, it seems that a common idea is that which of these types of guard is which is defined by whether or not you threaten your opponent with the edge or the point. There are flaws in this interpretation, however, and I have an alternate theory which conveniently also leads to three definitions of different guards that solves my personal issues with the term. To show you what I mean, here are two Unstable guards:
Followed by a Stable one:
Now it can be said that the first guard threatens with the edge, the second two threaten with the edge and point and the third threatens with the point only. I don’t think this in any way adequately describes the purpose of each guard, though.
We first have our Pulsativa. I’m going to go ahead and rename these “Opening Guards.” In Fiore, there are four Opening Guards. All are comfortable places to stand in for an extended period of time before coming into fighting distance and none of them provide any real threat or protection without first moving into a different position. Opening Guards have an advantage in that they are very good for throwing powerful strikes, as is implied by the Smiting moniker. Also, not only are they good positions for opening a fight, but they are good positions for creating openings in an opponent’s defence.
Next we have the Stable Guards which I’ll call “Strong Guards.” Strong Guards protect a small part of the body but protect it very well. In Fiore, when using the Strong Guards, the sword is held close to the body so that it is very hard to push out of the way. This inability for our opponent to move our sword fundamentally describes a Strong Guard. The disadvantage lies in the fact that Strong Guards can leave large portions of the body unprotected.
The Unstable Guards I prefer to think of as being “Moving Guards.” While they provide excellent protection and a clear threat because the sword point is extended, it is easy for an opponent to take control of your blade. Therefore although you can wait in these positions, it will probably be necessary to alter your guard to defend yourself or attack. Sometimes I like to think of these as being “Transitional Guards” because one of the ways they are most effective is if you are moving through them on the way to another position.
Although this interpretation is by no means unique, it seems limited to Fiore. To be fair Fiore is the only master I am aware of that makes this distinction in his guards, but I find that having three classes of guard is actually a useful concept that is fairly universal across any style of swordplay. This is where things get exciting. Let me show you. Remember I.33, the system has “no guards” present? Well here we have two Opening Guards, followed by a Moving and a Strong Guard
The I.33 system was recorded around the year 1300. Let’s move ahead to 1610 and Ridolfo Capoferro. Most rapier guards can be classified as Moving Guards, but here we have an Opening Guard and a Strong Guard.
Finally, if we go forward again to the 18th century, and Thomas Page’s Highland Broadsword, we can again see these three guard positions.
I feel that defining these three types of guards can really help people understand why each position is a guard, even if it does not immediately seem like it protects you. It is my feeling that rather than just teaching students that any way they hold a sword is a guard, they should be taught that not only are very specific positions proper guards but to differentiate between these different types of guard as well. Since each of these three guard types has a different method of defeating it, being able to identify each type will grant the student a clearer path to victory.
And now to sum up:
- Does your guard provide little direct protection but allow you to move fluently into an attack or defence? Then you are in an Opening Guard.
- Is your guard providing some protection while making it difficult for your opponent to take control of your sword? You have a Strong Guard.
- Does your guard protect most or all of your body, but have the risk that your opponent may be able to move your guard aside? You are in a Moving Guard.