by Piermarco Terminiello
Review: Lessons on the Thrust: An English Translation of Jeann Daniel L’Ange’s “Deutliche und Gründliche Erklärung der Aderlichen und Ritterlichen Freyen Fecht-Kunst” – Translated by Reinier Van Noort
The 1664 rapier treatise of Jéann Daniel L’Ange had long intrigued me.
The plates depict an Italianate method of fencing, with a simple cross-hilted sword, and interesting plays including some rather brutal grappling.
But not reading German, looking at the plates was as far as I could get. Until the intrepid Reinier Van Noort, current holder of the Best Researcher title from HROARR HEMA Scholar awards, presented us with a full modern English translation.
As a physical product, it is an attractive, well presented paperback, in the landscape typical of many original treatises, with very clean and clear reproductions of the plates. A good job from Fallen Rook Publishing, coming in at over 150 pages, with 61 plates.
As explained in the introduction, Jéann Daniel L’Ange is probably a cosmetic Gallicization of the German name Johann Daniel Lange, and that he was fencing master to the Palatine Elector, and at the University of Heidelberg.
L’Ange mentions he has seen and learned from masters in Italy, France, England, Holland and Germany, and states that he has stood his trials of fencing thirteen times in the presence of great Lords, and humblebrags that through good fortune had prevailed every time.
The content itself does not disappoint. The translation itself is very natural and clear, not at all obtrusive, and L’Ange’s own instructions are concise and easy to follow.
The terminology is easy to follow for anyone with a background of Italian rapier, and any German terms (or more often, Germanised Italian terms) are explained by a handy glossary at the front.
The text covers the single rapier, although L’Ange explains that his hand derives from the play of the dagger.
As mentioned above, the sword itself has a simple cross-hilt, apparently common for practice swords (the original uses the word degen, which is perhaps best translated as “fencing sword”).
At this year’s International Rapier Seminar in Dublin I was lucky enough to handle a reproduction based on the treatise, forged by the ever-masterful Marco Danelli: wonderfully light and agile.
The first third of the book, the opening twenty or so plates, covers the essentials of guards, parries, measure, and disengagement.
This content will be familiar to anyone with a background in Italian/Italian-influenced rapier, although of course comparing “new” works to those you are familiar with is always fruitful.
The instructions and plates are clear, even including “phantom footprints” of the starting position of the feet.
His stance and lunge are both very moderate, the feet are not too far apart, and his stance is only slightly back-weighted. The lunge is not deep, and he explicitly states that he wants the back foot to remain flat on the ground during the lunge.
This easy posture immediately suggests the treatise as a very good possible starting point to study rapier, without getting hung-up on deep lunges and the more physical stances of certain other works.
Other differences from the more widely-known Italian texts include very high first and second guards, with the point angled over the opponent’s head, and his thumb on the flat of the blade: not at all usual for Italian works.
The occasional insights of fencing culture interwoven into the treatises are always fascinating. L’Ange describes exactly how to gracefully acknowledge your fencing partner in the salle or in an exhibition bout, but admonishes the reader not to dream of performing this in earnest.
If the first twenty or so plates would form a good basis for a beginner’s curriculum, the next twenty or so plates, introduce more advanced plays for the intermediate student. Here we see feints, double feints, compound parries, beats, passing footwork, and several interesting variations on the volta (elsewhere sometimes referred to as the inquartata or girata).
Again this is plenty to get on with for the newer students, and provides an interesting new data point for the more experienced reader, with contextual points to please both. For example L’Ange states that:
“Many consider the voltas great, and use them often. Nevertheless, in fencing with sharps they are not so easily done or usual, because it is dangerous to turn your back to the adversary. However, when necessity demands it, and you are located at a wall or at an otherwise constricting place, so that you cannot give way, they can be applied in one or another manner”.
This is brilliant commentary for us to understand the context of the techniques, in other words: “these techniques are more for the salle than in earnest, but can come into their own in these particular circumstances in earnest”.
The Good Stuff
The last third or so is where the really fun stuff happens. If the first third presents a solid overview of the basics, and the second third more complex actions, the final third demonstrates more advanced content, including actions specific to L’Ange which will enrich anyone’s understanding of rapier.
First: five plates on seizing the sword and disarms, including stabbing the enemy with his own sword.
Next up: four grapples and throws, with such jolly names as “How, when passing, you can throw the enemy down, or break his arm or leg”. In total L’Ange illustrates two ways to break the enemy’s arm, two ways to break his leg, and two ways to break his neck. Not bad for a rapier treatise.
These grabs and grapples are performed both on the pass, and by advancing the front foot, which is an interesting contrast with Giganti, for example, who always prefers to grapple on the pass.
Then there are more complex actions on the blade, thrusts with the false edge, counter-disengages, left hand parries, half-swording with the rapier, a version of Fabris’ andare di risolutione, and ending with advice on fencing with sharps.
I was impressed by L’Ange’s treatise. Reinier’s good work is evidenced by the fact that I forgot I was reading a translation, so that this felt more like reviewing L’Ange’s original work. A work which, as a potential syllabus, stands up very well against comparative treatises.
Its clarity and logical progression is better than most, and it combines a lucid explanation of the essentials, more complex material, together with some more idiosyncratic plays, some of startling brutality.
Buy this if: You want additional illustrated material to support your study of Italian or Italianate rapier forms; you are interested in German fencing in the late seventeenth-century; you want to learn a style that doesn’t require strenuous postures or deep lunges; or you are looking for a clear foundational text to begin your study of rapier.
Don’t buy this if: you have no interest in late seventeenth-century, or German, rapier fencing.