Reviews: Agrippa and published translations thereof

You know, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody say “I do Agrippa rapier”. Considering that Camillo Agrippa’s 1553 “Treatise on the Science of Arms” is mentioned by Castle, Gaugler, Anglo and pretty much every other fencing historian as the origin of the 17th century school of rapier, this seems somewhat surprising. Since I’ve two different published translations on my shelf, it makes sense for me to review both the translations and the source translated at the same time.

Firstly, a bit of background on Agrippa. Camillo Agrippa was primarily an architect/engineer based in Rome, who hobnobbed with a “Who’s Who” of 16th century Italian Renaissance men, including the famous Michelangelo Buonarroti, he of Sistine Chapel and David fame. Therefore, his work extolling a more scientific approach to sword fighting had immediate access to a important group of people who disseminated it widely, despite Agrippa having no formal standing as a fencing teacher. The book we are currently dealing with was published in 1553, but two follow-ups were printed quite a bit later (1575 and 1585), which have not been translated to my knowledge. Though the fencing masters of the time seem to have ignored his work mainly (Di Grassi, Viggiani, Meyer, and Sainct Didier all seem unaware of his work), Agrippa’s ideas underlie the works of Fabris and his contemporaries in the early 17th century, and possibly inspired the Verdadera Destreza of Spain (unfortunately there is a distinct lack of translated Spanish works to read for myself what is written). Thus, Agrippa fills an important role in the development of 17th century rapier and subsequent sword fighting.

Now, there are two published translations of Agrippa: Ken Mondschein’s “Fencing: A Renaissance Treatise”, published by Italica Press (available through Amazon), and W. Jherek Swanger’s self-published translation (available through Lulu). The two books are chalk and cheese in appearance- the Mondschein is a small A5 paperback presentation, which would fit anonymously on your shelf of novels, whereas the Swanger is a large format (wider than A4) paperback. Thus, format immediately makes a difference to the use of these books. Though neither book contains exceptionally clean images of Agrippa’s figures (Mondschein photographed an original copy, Swanger made use of a copy supplied by the late Dr Patri Pugliese), the Swanger version has much larger pictures than the Mondschein which helps when using the book to study the treatise, but the figures are clearly visible in both. The Mondschein is obviously professionally edited, and makes better use of space than the Swanger, but the larger font in the Swanger may appeal to some. All in all, the presentation of both works.

The introduction to each book couldn’t be more different though, and I’d argue that this is a reason to possibly get both. Mondschein’s introduction focuses on the context of Agrippa’s work in terms of humanist thought and scientific ideals; Swanger’s intro focuses on the fencing side of the thesis, summarising and highlighting important aspects. I found the Mondschein introductory essay a little over flowery and not to my taste, but it does have a lot of useful contextual info. The Swanger introduction covered a lot of things I already knew, but then I’ve been working with rapier sources for 10 years before I got it. For a new student of the treatises and the long rapier, the Swanger version is definitely of more use, whereas the Mondschein book is more of an academic approach to the subject (and intended as such).

Now, here’s the big question: What about the source itself? I’m not going to comment on the translating jobs much- both versions are perfectly readable and I didn’t pick up any major discrepancies. I did find the translation notes in the Mondschein to be more useful, and some of Swanger’s annotations (he uses “Y” and “Z” to denote different participants in action) to be distracting. However, it’s the subject matter I’d like to deal with here.

The treatise consists of two books, the first of which concerns itself with the guards, and the second shows applications. Agrippa makes frequent digressions to discuss geometry and other issues, which can be an irritating habit, but he’s moderate in this respect versus somebody like Thibault. In Book 1 he works through the guards, justifying the simplification of fencing to only four guards (prime, secunda, terza and quarta), arguing for the supremacy of the thrust, and showing a variety of movements to use the four stances, with and without the dagger. There are some decided peculiarities here; for instance, the fencer’s head is often turned away, and the dagger definitely strays a lot from later teachings. However, I’d argue that the positions, while physical, are definitely doable.

Figure 1: A quarta from Agrippa, in response to a thrust

Thus, Book 1 is useful. Book 2 shows pairs of figures in action, and is where the heavy lifting comes in, and where I think most people lose interest in Agrippa beyond browsing. Put simply, the moves shown require immense confidence and skill, plus a lot of help from the opponent to pull off. Though most of the actions have been described in the text in Book 1, seeing them in action is a lot more worrying! Consider the action in Figure 2, where Agrippa shows a crooked/bent line defeating a straight line. I’m not sure about you, but neither figure shows what I’d call a safe approach to fighting!

Figure 2: Using a bent line to defeat a straight line

And really, this is where Agrippa goes from being a fencing treatise, to being a novelty. As later practitioner Ridolfo Capoferro says, there’s a different between theory and practice. Agrippa is laying out a theory, not showing how to fight. He’s arguing for a scientific approach to fighting, where the variables are known, and each fighter takes the appropriate action. It’s interesting, but not necessarily practicable. What bugs me most is the use (or lack thereof) of the off hand. The left hand never covers the line properly, and is often thrown backwards or away from the incoming blow (even when holding a dagger or a shield). Still, the similarities between this and later rapier treatises is clear.

Book 2 moves through single sword, then sword and dagger, cape and sword, then to a case of swords, some grappling, then some problematic sword and shield plays, to polearms, and then finally to comments on the sword in two hands (“uncertain rules” make it beyond Agrippa’s ability to explain) and fighting on horseback (Agrippa hasn’t had a chance to practice this). Some of these sections have interest tit bits of info, but are very much browse in and out sections.

The treatise rounds out with a philosphical dialogue regarding geometry. Here, the Mondschein edition shines brightly, as some figures are neglected in the Swanger book, and the Mondschein book does explain the underlying issues regarding the discussion better. Swanger ends the book with a bibliography, then two appendices (geometry and a summary of actions). Mondschein ends with an appendix of weapon weights and lengths, and a glossary.


All in all, I like having both translations on my shelf. The Swanger version has notes for the practitioner, the Mondschein version has notes for the academic historian. However, I’m not sure the average practitioner need have either on his shelf, as Agrippa’s work is most certainly not an easy text to develop a fighting style from. The system extolled is well reasoned, but not terribly practical in my view (I’d love to be proved wrong!). For me, it’s good to see the roots of later systems, and to understand some of the theory behind later fencing, but I’m not going to be fencing like Agrippa any time soon!