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Saturday, May 10, 2008


A rapier is a relatively slender, sharply pointed sword, used mainly for thrusting attacks, mainly in use in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Rapier, first half of the 17th Century.
Rapier, first half of the 17th Century.



[edit] Description

Rapier generally refers to a relatively long-bladed sword characterized by a complex hilt which is constructed to provide protection for the hand wielding it. While the blade might be broad enough to cut to some degree (but nowhere near that of the thicker, heavier swords in use around the Middle Ages), the strength of the rapier is its ability as a thrusting weapon. The blade might be sharpened along its entire length, sharpened only from the center to the tip (as described by Capoferro), or completely without a cutting edge as called "estoc" by Pallavicini, a rapier master who, in 1670, strongly advocated using a weapon with two cutting edges. A typical example would weigh 1 kg and have a relatively long and slender blade of 2.5 centimetres or less in width, 1 meter or more in length and ending in a sharply pointed tip.

The term rapier generally refers to a thrusting sword with a blade longer and thinner than that of the so-called side-sword but heavier than the smallsword, a lighter weapon that would follow in the 18th century and later, but the exact form of the blade and hilt often depends on who is writing and when. It can refer to earlier spada da lato (much like the espada ropera) through the high rapier period of the 17th century through the smallsword and dueling swords, thus context is important in understanding what is meant by the word. (The term side-sword, used among some modern historical martial arts reconstructionists, is a translation from the Italian spada da lato--a term coined long after the fact by Italian museum curators--and does not refer to the slender, long rapier, but only to the early 16th-century Italian sword with a broader and shorter blade that is considered both its ancestor and contemporary.)

It is important to remember that the word "rapier" was not used by Italian, Spanish and French masters during the apogee of this weapon, the terms spada, espada and epee (or espee) being instead the norm (generic word for "sword"). Because of this as well as the great variation of late-16th and 17th century swords, some like Tom Leoni simply describe the rapier as a straight-bladed, two-edged, single-handed sword of that period which is self-sufficient in terms of both offense and defense, not requiring a companion weapon. In order to avoid the confusion of lumping all swords together, some categorizes such swords by their function and use. For example, John Clements categorizes thrusting swords with poor cutting abilities as rapiers and categorizes swords with both good thrusting and cutting abilities as Cut & Thrust swords.[1] Some however see the rapier in its entire time-line and see that it never truly fits into any single definition. Largely all over Europe the weapon changed based on culture and the fighting style that was prescribed; be it Italian, Spanish, or some other instruction on the weapons use, so that lengths, widths, hilt designs and even the lack or placement of an edge or edges differed at the same time. One may wear a rapier with a wire hilt and edges on the same given day as another man having a cup hilt and an edgeless blade.

[edit] Parts of the sword

[edit] Hilt

Rapiers often had complex, sweeping hilts designed to protect the hand wielding the sword. Rings extended forward from the crosspiece. Later these rings were covered with metal plates, eventually evolving into the cup hilts of many later rapiers. Many hilts included a knuckle bow extending down from the crosspiece protecting the hilt, which was usually wood wrapped with cord, leather or wire. A fat pommel (often decorated) secured the hilt to the weapon and provided a balance to the long blade.

[edit] Blade

Various rapier masters divided the blade into two, three, four, five or even nine parts. The forte, strong, is that part of the blade closest to the hilt; in cases where a master divides the blade into an even number of parts, this is the first half of the blade. The debole, weak, is the part of the blade which includes the point and is the second half of the blade when the sword is divided into an even number or parts. However, some rapier masters divided the blade into three parts (or even a multiple of three), in which case the central third of the blade, between the forte and the debole, was often called the medio or the terzo.

The Ricasso is that portion of the blade, usually unsharpened, which extends forward from the crosspiece or quillons and which is protected by the complex hilt.

[edit] History

The rapier began to develop around 1500 as the Spanish espada ropera, or "dress sword"[citation needed]. The espada ropera was a cut-and-thrust civilian weapon for self-defense and the duel, while earlier weapons were equally at home on the battlefield. Throughout the 16th century, a variety of new, single-handed civilian weapons were being developed, including the German Rappier, another cut-and-thrust weapon used for sportive fencing, as described in Joachim Meyer's Fechtbuch of 1570. Nevertheless, the English word "rapier" generally refers to a primarily thrusting weapon, developed by the year 1600 as a result of the geometrical theories of such masters as Camillo Agrippa and Ridolfo Capoferro.

The rapier became extremely fashionable throughout Europe with the wealthier classes, but was not without its detractors. Some people, such as George Silver, disapproved of its technical potential and the duelling use to which it was put.

The etymology of the word rapier is uncertain. Charles du Fresne, sieur du Cange used the word Rapparia in 1484 to describe an espée in his Glossarium mediae et infimae Latinitatis. He proposed that the origin of the word may stem from the Greek ραπίξειν, to cut. However, Walter William Skeat suggested that "rapiér" may derive from raspiére, a poker, and that this may be a contemptuous term developed by older cut-and-thrust fencers for the new weapon. The most probable root of this term, however, appear to be from the Spanish ropera that cames from ropa, or elegant dress, thus a "dress Sword".

Allowing for fast reactions, and with a long reach, the Rapier was well suited to civilian combat in the 16th-17th centuries. As military style cutting and thrusting swords continued to evolve to meet needs on the battlefield, so did Rapiers continue to evolve to meet the needs of civilian combat and duels, eventually becoming lighter and shorter. This is when the rapier began to give way to the smallsword.

By the year 1715, the rapier had been largely replaced by the lighter smallsword throughout most of Europe, although the former continued to be used, as evinced by the treatises of Donald McBane (1728), P. J. F. Girard (1736) and Domenico Angelo (1787).

[edit] Historical schools of rapier fencing

[edit] Italian

[edit] Spanish

Main article: Destreza

[edit] French

[edit] English

  • Joseph Swetnam, The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence (1617)
  • The Pallas Armata (1639)

[edit] German

[edit] The classical fencing tradition

Classical fencing schools claim to have inherited aspects of rapier forms in their systems. In 1885, fencing scholar Egerton Castle wrote "there is little doubt that the French system of fencing can be traced, at its origin, to the ancient Italian swordsmanship; the modern Italian school being of course derived in an uninterrupted manner from the same source." Castle went on to note that "the Italians have preserved the rapier form, with cup, pas d'ane, and quillons, but with a slender quadrangular blade." [3]

[edit] Modern practitioners

In the recent past, there has been an increased interest in the recreation of the fighting arts of the European Renaissance, including the numerous systems of rapier play. Practitioners face a difficulty in their study as, unlike some eastern martial arts, there are no unbroken traditions reaching back to the time when these arts were put into martial practice. Because of this, practitioners must draw upon techniques from the few remaining period texts written by period masters.

[edit] Popular culture and entertainment

[edit] More information

For a more detailed explanation of the primary use of the rapier — dueling — see European dueling sword.

See also the Spanish espada ropera.

[edit] Literature

  • Clements, John. Renaissance Swordsmanship : The Illustrated Book Of Rapiers And Cut And Thrust Swords And Their Use. Paladin Press, 1997. ISBN 0-87364-919-2
  • Kirby, Jared. Italian Rapier Combat: Ridolfo Capo Ferro. Greenhill Books, 2004. ISBN 978-1853675805
  • Leoni, Tommaso. The Art of Dueling: 17th Century Rapier as Taught by Salvatore Fabris. Chivalry Bookshelf, 2005. ISBN 978-1891448232
  • Wilson, William E. Arte of Defence: An Introduction to the Use of the Rapier. Chivalry Bookshelf, 2002. ISBN 978-1891448188
  • Windsor, Guy. Duellists Companion: A Training Manual for 17th Century Italian Rapier. Chivalry Bookshelf, 2006. ISBN 978-1891448324

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ John Clements. Renaissance Swordsmanship : The Illustrated Book Of Rapiers And Cut And Thrust Swords And Their Use. Paladin Press, 1997. ISBN 0-87364-919-2
  2. ^ Rubboli and Cesari (2005) date this work to 1500-1525. Leoni and Reich of the Order of the Seven Hearts date it to "about 1550" (2006 class handout)[1]
  3. ^ Castle, Schools and Masters of Fence. London: George Bell & Sons, 1885. pp. iv, 257
  4. ^ The Three Musketeers (1973)

[edit] External links

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