Back to top

Obligations of the Master and Disciple in Historical European Martial Arts

by Jaime Girona
Documentation provided by Manuel Valle
English translation by Tim Rivera

Some time ago, the curiosity of a good friend put me in a jam. He raised two interesting questions that deserved a longer and more elaborate response; they were: “How did the old fencing masters teach?” and “What could a student of a master expect in beginning to practice fencing, what was required, and what was given?” Although they are related, the response to the first question will have to wait for another article; there is much to say in that respect. In order to respond to the second, I resort to bringing out a fragment of a manuscript on the Spanish style known as verdadera destreza, famous for its exhaustive detail, among other things. It is very difficult to respond to these questions without choosing a very precise context, because in dealing with dozens of styles of different eras, generalizing gets pretty hairy. What was considered good in one era would be cowardly in another, and it's possible that what one style considered acceptable, another didn't.

The manuscript utilized is the M-29 of the Library of the University of Oviedo, an interesting anonymous work of 126 pages titled by Manuel Valle Ortiz as Diálogo Maestro Discípulo [Dialog Between Master and Disciple] in his Nueva bibliografía de la antigua esgrima y destreza de las armas [New bibliography of historical fencing and skill at arms]. It is possible that it corresponds to the Diálogos sobre la Destreza de las armas [Dialog on the Skill at arms] described by Enrique de Leguina, Baron of la Vega and pioneering historian of Spanish fencing. The text is difficult to date with exactitude; the only date provided is the indication that it was copied in 1724.

The manuscript follows a format of questions and answers, in which a master and his disciple discuss many aspects of the martial art. There are more than 200 questions and answers, from which I have taken two in order to elaborate this response-article.

Obligations and duties of the Master

Firstly, the master should be skilled, for its own sake. It can be bad to teach to others what he doesn't know.

He should have great clarity in the explanation of the terms of the science, seeking to instruct his disciples in the theory and practice, with full distinction and clarity.

He should first teach them the movements, steps, lines, and angles, ensuring that the explanation corresponds to the theory, and the demonstration to the practice.

He should teach them the forms of the means of defense, and techniques [tretas] in their most perfect demonstrations.

He should not permit superfluous movements and steps, and should indoctrinate them so that in practice, they don't do harmful demonstrations or extremes, nor violent gestures.

He should teach them to work with valor and gallantry, without permitting actions that give indications of cowardice or fear.

He should certainly enforce bouting, and allow it, because without executing it none can learn it, but the master has to be present in order to reprimand, correct, and signal the errors that were committed.

He should battle them rigorously in the lesson, so that they get used to not fearing the offenses of the opposing sword.

He should not force the choice in the inclination of the demonstrations, but teach them according to their ingenuity, but in accord with the precepts and laws of the science.

He should teach them the method that they have to apply against the techniques, the measures of defense, and all its places, types, and forms.

He should make them learn by memory the fundamental definitions and principles of the science, so that the comprehension of their explanation is easier.

He should not instruct them in many demonstrations at one time, because a multitude hinders easy comprehension.

Apart from that, he should exercise them in the use of the sword, in abilities of strength and agility, so that employing these exercises habituates the limbs and makes the natural strengths robust.

He should give them notice of the schools of other nations, so that in battle they are experts on any attack, and they are not surprised by the variety of methods that the practice among contrary and different nations and schools brings.

He should advise them not to look down on foreign doctrines, remembering that in all nations there are scientific and valiant men.

He should tell them that destreza in all regions is one, that, like science, its fundamental principles and truths are not altered or adulterated by the variety of schools and people where they teach and learn; in such circumstance, this science is equal to the other sciences.

He should teach them the practical demonstrations with the greatest ease and least work so that they aren't too fatigued in their operations, nor do they employ their vigor in superfluous actions.

He should have the school very clean and tidy, without trinkets or junk that get in the way.

He should have benches so that those that don't battle or take a lesson can sit.

He should have for himself a chair on the wall where he will sit alone in the presence of his disciples.

He should have enough lights at night, and such that they don't hinder or blind those that attend the school.

He should not permit mockery or jokes that give rise to unpleasantness and quarrels.

He should not permit conversations that are illicit or harmful to good manners.

He should have good swords in the school, good quality, well-adorned, with good buttons and slippers.

In no case should he allow those who watch to laugh at those who battle.

He should not permit shouting or whispering, which hinder those who learn in the comprehension of what they are taught.

In a bout, he should not allow his disciples or others, even if they are masters, trickery, bad words, pushes, trips, taking the blade of the sword with the left hand, and wounding at the same time, whose effects he will warn against with all courtesy, and if it will not be enough, he will punish it with the sword.

When another master enters his school, he should offer him a seat and montante.

He should not allow his disciples foolish obstinance, and will slowly explain to them their doubts and difficulties with clarity and patience.

The master should not avoid battling, so that his disciples see that he knows what he teaches them, see his school with more confidence, and learn with greater satisfaction.

He should allow one who asks to battle with him, even though he doesn't have title of master, because excusing oneself by saying that he only battles with masters is an indication of ignorance, presumption, or cowardice.

He should not allow his disciples to speak badly of other schools; in the case that they impugn their doctrines, it is in practice with the sword, and in theory with all urbanity and courtesy.

He should not allow them to battle with weapons like sharp swords, daggers, or fists, but only with the weapon that will be appropriate.

He should not allow one to lack courtesy in the beginning or end of the bout.

He should punish with the sword one who will not refrain when the master puts it in the middle.

When he directs the combatant who is touched to give up the sword, he should permit a reply only once.

He should advise that the techniques that are executed in a bout reach to the body.

In the public bouts, he should have cleared the arena, leaving to those that battle the space necessary for their demonstrations.

He should not interfere in the public games where all types of people take up the sword, even though they are black or slaves, because abilities are disputed there, not qualities.

He should advise his disciples to treat the opponent with lawfulness and courtesy, even though the man may be lowly, and they are of nobility and graduation.

When necessary, he should punish or correct, not working with preferences, but with distributive justice, each one given a place with prudence and courtesy.

He should advise his disciples that they are not given to be aggrieved, even though the inferior executes some technique rigorously, because apart from that, it should be so, and the science directs him; the sword can hurt but not aggrieve.

He should not praise his disciples where they hear him, because this makes them proud and results in self-praise.

He should not be accredited with his disciples telling of fantastic bouts, nor repeating the true ones, because one is discrediting, and the other is being foolishly boastful.

He should not allow others to dare to correct his disciples in his school, nor to voice their doctrines; if it will be necessary, reduce it to a bout or formal dispute.

In the case of his doctrines being disputed, he should battle first and then argue, because it would be ridiculous if, after many verbs and voices, they gave him many cuts.

In the completion of work, he should behave such that it seems a prize and not a scam.

And finally he should treat his disciples with love, courtesy, and truth, giving them a good example in his words and manners, so that they leave from his school as valiant and courteous diestros, with which he will comply with his obligations as a good master, and they will leave well-instructed in all good things, being a credit and honor to their master.

Obligations and duties of the disciple

In all his practical demonstrations, the diestro should attend to his defense first, and that of his opponent after. For its attainment, complying with the laws of a diestro, and principally of a christian, he should primarily not form techniques, unless all of its operations are directed to the movement of conclusion, where he subjects and defeats his opponent without wounding or killing him. If the combat will be with a public enemy, whom he can legally kill, the science permits the execution of the techniques. In this case, its greatest perfection will be in working them with utmost rigor and speed, so that being less perceptible, the defense is more difficult for the opponent.
Although it is legal to kill him due to being a public enemy, it is nonetheless pious counsel of the science that the diestro defeats him without wounding or killing him, being content with the glory of the triumph, without which the execution of the blows and rigor of the offenses bloody it.

The diestro should obligate the opponent in only one precise form in a foreseen and known point, so that he can easily achieve his own defense, whose doctrine is seen clearly in this demonstration. The opponent formed an atajo on the inside, in order to wound in one of three points: the vertical, collateral, or face; the diestro opened the angle, which covered the vertical and collateral, obligating the opponent to direct the blow to the face, which provides great advantages in his favor. One restricting the potency that he had in the universal to only one immediate and known act, and the other making his own defense easier, having to guard only one point, and that prevented by the same diestro who, for these reasons, should voluntarily offer disposition in only one point, without the rigor of the opponent's technique scaring him, but rather make use of the means of the competent defense with integrity and courage, passing by means of one of the extremes, close or mean of proportion [medio de proporción].

The diestro should take note that this science, in its practice, requires not only natural strengths, agility in the limbs, and liveliness in the senses, but principally great courage and spirit, because its demonstrations cannot be perfectly realized by a cowardly spirit, in whom fear hinders the greatest liveliness of actions and senses, without permitting that craftiness and integrity with which they should wait for the enemy offenses and attack when the quality of the bout permits.
Thus the diestro will know that there is this difference in the theoretical and practical parts of this science: in theory, anyone (even though he is a coward) can be scientific, but in practice only the courageous can be, because he tries its rigorous demonstrations with the speed and boldness that its greatest perfection requires.

The diestro should not fight with the opponent's sword, except in the case of deflecting, diverting, and subjecting it. This is done with strength so intense and reserved, that even though the bout is lengthy, the natural strengths do not tire him, nor are they inconvenient for his defense due to the excesses of the impulse that he will place in the swords, which is where the dispositions of appropriated means [medios apropiados] ordinarily originate.

He should not make more movements than those which will be necessary for the means of defense and formation of the techniques that are permitted.

He should not take more steps with the feet than those necessary for each demonstration, and these of the distance that they regularly require.

Where he will have the choice of two or more demonstrations, he should choose the best.

In the formations of the techniques, when they will be legal, which will be when the battle is with a public enemy or with practice swords, he should choose the thrust before the cut, because that is less perceptible to the enemy, and for this reason its defense is more difficult.

He should always seek the means of defense in his favor by always having his enemy contained under one of his dispositions.

He should punctually choose the mean of proportion, establishing himself in the posture that will be of greatest convenience and will give him the easiest disposition for the terms in which he will want to begin the battle.

He should not remain in the proportionate mean [medio de proporción] without the protection of some means of defense.

As much as he can, he should hide the technique that he chooses from the opponent, for defending as well as offending, until he reaches its precise formation. This has to be without shouting or disordered actions, but instead very composed.

He should always carry the parts of the body in regular composure: the left arm on the horizontal line, the head straight, the face with serenity and temperance, and the feet well-placed.

He should form the steps with a motion without violence, without hopping or dragging the feet, seeking that prudent mean that, complying with the nature of each step, looks to its greatest ease and relaxation.

When the opponent attacks him, he should not turn the face, close the eyes, or give any other indication of cowardice or ignorance.

When attacking, he should reduce the extremes of cholera to the regular precepts of the science, working with art, knowledge, and bravery.

While waiting, he should conduct himself with great calmness, such vigilance that brings him to understand, forewarned but not fearful.

In the practical demonstrations, he should not want to run down the opponent, because consequences follow from one foolish confidence; one has to deal with the enemy with with bravery but not with contempt.

He should not have such respect for the opponent that he appears fearful, so that cowardice is not introduced from the courtesy that his attention gives to the rigors of the arms.

He should have courtesy for his opponent at the beginning of the bout, because he goes there to defeat him with courage, not to disparage him rudely.

He should not say bad words in the bout, because where they have weapons at hand, the nobility of the act doesn't permit outbursts of the tongue.

He should behave in his bouts in a way that the blows of arms are followed, but not the rumor of the voices.

When the form of the techniques will be legal, he should execute them face to face, so that in this way his science and courage are accredited equally.

He should behave with magnanimity in the movement of conclusion, not wounding the opponent when he will be defenseless, because wounding him when he can defend himself accredits his courage and shows the art, but offending him when his defense is impossible is a sign of cowardice or an effect of cruelty.

When the concluded opponent fights to get free, threaten him with the blow, but do not execute it, unless it is in combat with practice swords, or with a public enemy.

If the sword will be broken, one should not make use of this advantage to press the opponent, because defeating him without weapons is an act without valor, and the fortune is made use of with villainy.

When the sword is broken, the diestro should not beg to his opponent with fear, but caution him, and not with much insistence, because if the opponent has to work with bravery, it will be enough to caution him, but if he has to behave with villainy, too much pleading will make him more cruel.

If the opponent will fall in a bout, he should be given time so that he gets up. If the cause of the fall was some blow, one doesn't execute the second, because one blow is a child of battle, but two are an indication of cruelty, when the second is executed on a fallen enemy.

If he will fall, the diestro should not assume defeat, because even in such case the means of defense can favor him. When the opponent will be tired, he should give respite out of courtesy, but if he will not, he doesn't lack the laws of valor.

If two opponents attack him, he should defend himself from one with the sword, and the other removing the reach, always seeking in the mean of proportion that prudent mean of defending himself valiantly, without being lost to fear or fleeing with cowardice.

And finally on the occasion of practice, he should be with integrity and courage, without being astonished by the shouts and attacks of the opponent, and with great attention in order to work what is convenient to his own defense.