The Spanish Circle
Girard Thibault's Circle Diagram
An examination of the mysteries, background and period use of the
Spanish Circle also known as La Destreza
As researched by HL John James MacCrimmon
For the Caidian Rapier Academy (AS XXXV, CE 2000)
The opinions stated within the context of this course and this text, are those of the author. They have been developed after years of research, study and applied theory. Even so, I do not claim to be a master of the Spanish Circle. For me to make such claims would merely state that I have decided I’ve learned everything there is to know of a subject. I do not claim full knowledge of all the historical or fighting elements of the Spanish Circle, only the desire to learn more. What I am presenting are techniques I’ve discovered, practiced and my personal theories of how these methods were practiced.
I also give credit were credit is due. Much of the material here was found on-line,
in the research of other fencing enthusiasts. I have included a full bibliography, including links to on-line sites I’ve used.
At the end of the 16th Century, one of the deadliest, most elegant, and certainly most misunderstood forms of rapier combat was being perfected. Its genesis did not originate on the streets of London, the salle’s of Paris or the academies of Italy, where the Renaissance was in full flower. Instead, born of war and a unique cultural development, the Spanish Circle or La Destreza developed and captured the imagination of fencers in Spain. Sometimes called the Magic Circle, due its master’s ability to completely manipulate a duel, this style inspired fear in those who faced it and awe in those who saw it properly employed. It was a proscribed method of fighting that successfully endured for nearly 250 years after the rapier had been displaced throughout the rest of Europe.
What was the Spanish Circle? Why was it so successful for such a long period? Lastly, what made this style of rapier combat difficult to understand? Many of these questions will be addressed in this class. The answers may not be as surprising as some of the mysteries surrounding them.
This course will attempt to clear up some of the points of confusion, misinformation, and outright fallacies surrounding the Destreza. Some of the slanted views have given the impression that the style was stiff and artificial. These fail to show it’s dynamic and practical applications in period, which made it so effective. Some of these incorrect aspects included:
· That both fencers remained within a given circular area,
· That mysticism and magic took the place of good combat sense,
· And, that the Destreza promoted a rigid stance which hindered mobility.
Until recently, much of what of commonly known about the Spanish Circle came from
the manual of Girard Thibault of Antwerp. His Academie de L’Espee’, published in 1628, borrowed heavily from and expounded upon the works of Jeronimo de Caranza, and his student Don Luis Pacheco de Narvaez. Caranza was recognized as the founder of the Spanish School and wrote of it in his De La Filosofia de las Armes (1583). Narvaez quantified many of Caranza’s teachings and philosophies regarding the Destreza in his Libro de las Grandezas de la Espada in 1600. It’s ironic to note, but this researcher found no notes or trace that Thibault was himself a fencing master or even picked up a rapier. It could be said, then that Thibault was writing a “how-to” book on something he only had a passing knowledge of. Many of the observation were fundamentally correct in his text, but lacked clear descriptions or practical application.
The course will address the likely development of this style and in the context of Spanish history. Rather than be treated as a separate entity, the Destreza owes its origins and practice to the culture it developed from. All too frequently we only study the styles, formats and fashions of fighting. We conveniently clump together concepts of how a particular attack or guard would have looked or functioned, and make the conclusion that this what we should do. This fails to look at the why it was done, or what caused it. We as historical fencers and researchers need to look at the broader view of what we represent, to see how the society and technology affects things.
The Spanish Kingdom’s rich history colored the knowledge and experience of the fencers who came from its lands. Though the Renaissance barely affected Spain, it’s nobles and wealthy middle classes were highly educated and knowledgeable in many subjects. The Church taught many of lay folk in the healing arts. Much of this healing knowledge (unfortunately) came as the result of the Inquisition. The rules of Inquisitorial questioning required that any injuries must be healed (as best as possible) should the victim profess innocence. On a darker note, the Inquisition also taught Spaniards where the body was most vulnerable to critical injury and rapid death.
The mind of the period Spaniard was also educated in matters of science. In various schools and universities, they learned about the philosophies of the ancient Romans and Greeks from the Marannos (Converted Jews). Matters of mathematics and geometry were taught by the Mariscos (Converted Moors).
The Crown, through various military actions (internal and external) gave many young gentlemen of Spain practical fighting experience. As experience counts for something, it should be noted that Spain was at war throughout the Renaissance:
1492 - Grenada conquered (End of the Iberian Moorish Kingdoms)
1519 - Aztecs conquered
1528 - Incas conquered
1567 - Low Countries in revolt (lasts till 1609)
1569 - Morisco revolt quelled
1571 - Battle of Lepanto (Turks defeated off Greece)
1588 - Battle of Gravelines (The Armada)
1608 - Moriscos revolt again
These are just the highlights, and don't include the various battles and actions by the Portuguese (a part of Spain of period) in the Americas, India and the Far East.
Walking in Circles and Fighting by Tangents
When taken in context, the Destreza was radically different than any techniques being touted by the Italian masters or their French contemporaries. During this era, the use of the lunge was not common, having only been introduced by Angelo Viggiani in 1575 (Lo Schermo). Instead, fighters used a pass-step to close the distance between themselves and their opponent. These pass steps, frequently initiated from the broad foot stance, left little ability to take an addition step toward the target without dangerously losing balance or committing to an attack.
Most attacks in the Italian style involved a rush or a beat to remove the opponent's sword from the line of attack. They did not teach or advocate the use of a sword parry as we know it today. Instead, they stressed the use of a strong counter-attack, hence the saying "the best defense is a good offense." Consider also that the functional thrust, prior to Viggiani and Saviolo, was delivered as a punching action from the shoulder to extend the range of the weapon, rather than by extending a step into the opponent.
The Spanish masters stressed knowing the effective range of the weapon and using this to advantage. As each fighter is different in their size and reach, they taught their students to envision the effective range of their sword to include a small step or lunge toward the opponent. This range then formed a circle around the Spaniard and likewise encircled their opponent. The effective range would be a distance or a chord measured from the base of the leading foot (typically the right) to an arm's length over the fighter's head. Narvaez, in his Libro, gave a very generalized measure of this range and description of the circle (see Fig 1 & 2). Thibault's circle directs the fencer on how to envision their effective range and the circle around their adversary in great detail (see the cover). Unfortunately, both examples don't show dimension or depth.
Fig 1 Narvaez’ Circle Fig 2 Guard position from Narvaez' treatise
Perhaps the best representation of the effective circle (or circles) of range is taken from the manual of Frederico Ghisliero, Regole do Molti Cavagliereschi Esserciti (1587). He was a contemporary of Caranza and the rare exception of the Italian masters. Though his circle is smaller in size (Fig 3), it's three dimensional depiction is far more descriptive.
Fig 3. Note the floor rings, the blade dimensions and hilts, the foot positions,
and the dagger hand stance and parry. The starting position of the defender is to
the far right. Note the opponent's weapon has been driven off the line of attack.
What has frequently been misunderstood about the circle, was that each fighter stood within their own circle. These circles then moved with the fighter as they moved. When circles overlapped, they presented moments of opportunity and danger depending on how the fighters manipulated their lines of attack. Thibault's complex line diagrams show, from various positions where various attacks can be launched with minimal risk of counter-attack.
Another difference between the Italian and the Spanish style, is the Destreza taught fighters that the best defense was to get out of the way of the attack. Staying out of the opponent's circle, except when attacking or exploiting weakness, was key to success. Many defensive moves were simple voids and slanted retreats, executed to remove the fencer from the line of attack. Attacks essentially were shallow lunges, voids, slopes and Punto Reverso's, closing range, but all the while angling away from the opponent. This allowed the Spaniard to traverse the chords or edges of the opponent's circle, attack, then move back out to safety.
If it hasn't become apparent, movement was a major part of the Magic Circle. Movement along the circle for the most part was clockwise to the fencers left. This is best illustrated by Thibault's stepping diagrams, which show footsteps moving clockwise. These clockwise movements forced the opponent into constantly changing their angle of attack. It removed effectiveness of any secondary the opponent hand had taking it out of range. Moreover, it gave the Spaniard the chance the attack on shorter tangent to the enemy while they moved in and out of the opponent's circle. Most importantly, it fit into the highly defensive Spanish style, by presenting a smaller profiled target at all times
The Dance of Death
The Spanish school stressed cool demeanor under pressure, and practiced maneuver and footwork to control the conduct of the fight. It also taught that instilling a sense of fear or menace granted the Spaniard a further advantage over their opponent.
The Destreza taught swordsmen to maintain the menacing stance so frequently associated with the Spanish style of fighting. The stance, known as, the Diestro, (see
Fig 4) showed the smallest profile of the fighter to their enemy. The body would to turned to semi-profiled position, heels only slightly apart (see Fig 1), while standing in a relaxed stance.
Fig 4 The Diestro from Thibault's treasise
The sword arm is extended horizontal to the ground, sword held at arm's length. The weapon's tip would then be pointed at the guard of the opponent's sword, or leveled at the opponent's eyes. From this position, the defender is threatened by any move towards the fighter maintaining the Diestro.
From the Diestro, the fencer could use subtle movements of their body to direct or lead the movements of their adversary into positions where the Spaniard could attack with success and safety. They could also easily step out of the line of attack by a single step off either foot. Attacks could also easily be launched from this stance, by stepping toward the opponent or across one of the chords of their circle. Though not a true lunge, from this closed stance, great range could be attained in the step towards the enemy.
Using subtle twists of the wrist, elbow and shoulder, the Spaniard could gain leveraged control over the opponent’s blade, or Atajo, and change their enemy's angle of the attack during engagements. To gain Atajo, the Spanish masters stressed mastering the feel, or Tacto, of the opponent’s weapon through their own sword. Done properly, Tacto allowed the fencer to read the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent’s guard or attack. Once these strengths and weaknesses were realized, the Spaniard could, as if by magic, respond to the opponent even before the attack began.
The Desvio is the closest thing to the traditional parry as we think of it today. "Desvio" literally means to change the course, parry or deflect. Properly done, it allowed the fighter to deflect their opponent’s sword, while putting their own in position to either impale the on-coming attacker or to counter-attack (see Fig 5) with a simple step lunge.
Fig 5 The Desvio; note the defender (at right) has taken the
attacker off their line of attack, and left themself positioned to
stop-thrust their opponent
The Philosophy of the Fight
The Spanish school’s philosophy of the fight, extended even beyond the actions of the duel, but also included an understanding of what made the opponent tick. It employed subtle methods to unhinge the resolve or concentration of the opponents they faced. Students of the Destreza, learned to observe the enemy to better gauge their strengths and expected courses of action. It’s defensive nature readily lent itself to this observation and calculated counter-action. Overall, it gave the Spaniard an appearance of cold indifference. After several unsuccessful attacks, even the most seasoned duelist might have second thoughts about fighting an apparently unconcerned but well defended opponent.
The Spanish school also taught by observing the opponent’s style of combat, they could be prepared for their attacks and defense. This also extended to the personal style of the attacker. Then as now, fencers gravitated to specific style/technique combinations (aggressive fighter, the counter-puncher, the sniper, the overly cautious, etc.). Observation allowed the Spaniard to use the weakness of the enemy’s style against them. Thibault notes the use of colorful descriptions of the styles and methods the fencer could see in the course of their fighting. These descriptives were used to paint an easily remembered picture in the mind’s eye. For example, rather than saying that a fencer is fighting from a deeply refused guard (Saviolo), the Destreza could call this the Drunkard’s Ward. As what is translated of Thibault’s text, doesn’t lend itself to easy description, the closest description I can find to describe these forms is in Miyamoto Musashi’s, The Book of Five Rings (1643). Ironically, Musashi wrote this book at age 60, after the Spanish and Portuguese had been in contact with Japan for some 90 years – coincidence perhaps?
The Spanish also knew that instilling fear and gaining the psychological advantage against their opponent through the Diestro wasn’t always enough. Active measures were also taken. “The (Spanish) Kiss”, and quick thrust/cut to the nose or mouth, was a truly devastating attack whether lethal or disabling to the opponent. Though the direct reference is post-period, it is easy to assume that from position of the Diestro, this would attack have been a preferred opening (or closing, as the case may be) line of attack a Spaniard would take. Even if the blow stuck wasn’t fatal, the split nose or lips would bleed heavily and the pain would be terribly disabling. A missed blow, would give the opponent great hesitancy to engage in rush in closer for fear of further riposte’ to the face.
Distinctions of Style
What made the Spanish Style of fencing so respected if not feared by contemporaries of that period, was it the attitude, the demeanor of the Spaniard, the precision of the attacks and parries, or was there something more? Consider that in a time frame where thousands died yearly from duels (in many cases, both parties of the duel), many Spanish trained fighters walked away without grievous or life-threatening injuries. A bit of philosophy here… If I see someone usually winning and coming away virtually unscathed from a fight, I’m not going to want to play with them. This appearance gave the Spaniard something equivalent to instant fame and an aura of invincibility where rapier combat was concerned. Considering many duels were matters of passion or honor, people might think twice before challenging a known student of the Destreza.
Because of the Spanish constant interest in warfare, they learned some valuable lessons about fighting. In wars, you can’t afford to lose a large amount of the fighting force and expect to win repeatedly; the same applies to their philosophy of dueling. The Spanish trained their fighters to come back alive though solid defense. Experience and education showed them how and where to hit their opponent to quickly put them out of the fight. From the available texts and accounts, students of the Destreza were taught to hit the vital organs or major nerve centers as primary target areas. An enemy, who can’t function, can’t take you with them in death, but this was easier said then done. Or was it?
In the beginning, I noted that education, background and experience help round out the Spanish trained fencer, but there’s one part still missing from the puzzle - the weapon. In the past five years, I’ve managed to observe four Spanish rapiers from in period or just afterward. Three of the four bore what at first appeared to small gouges or dents in blades. These started from the tip of the sword down about six to eight inches on either cutting edge. The blunted areas appeared at regular intervals rather than random locations, giving the impression that they were intentionally placed, thus serrating the blade. A sharp knife or sword will easily puncture the body; however, the deadly the wound they inflict, incapacitation may not be immediate. In a duel, this could allow a fatally wounded opponent to also wound or kill the “victor.” A serrated weapon will not only produce the same fatal wounds, but it will also cause shock, which incapacitates and quickly downs the victim. Given the Spanish knowledge of anatomy, and their understanding that an incapacitated opponent could not cause them further, fatal harm, it is reasonable to assume that the swords were burred or serrated intentionally
For a weapons style and method decried my many historians, the Spanish or Magic Circle, proved to be such an effective technique, that it’s use lasted until the mid-1800’s. The elegance, style and unique nature of this school of rapier made it legendary in the annals of historical fencing, rather then a unique footnote. It seems ironic that this style of fencing lived on after it was supplanted, in another uniquely Spanish pastime – the arena of the matador and the bullfight.
HL John James MacCrimmon (AoA, GoA – Goute de Sange of An Tir; twice member of HRM An Tir’s Rapier Guard; and former Regional Rapier Marshal in both An Tir and the MidRealm) has been actively fencing in the SCA for nearly ten years. When not on voyages aggressively pursuing merchantman (read pirating) duties for his Uncle Samuel, John James can be found either fighting in or heralding the lists of various tournaments. Mundanely, Capt. J.B. Smith is a research and telemetry instructor navigator in the USAF. He is assigned to the Flight Test Center at Edwards AFB, and flies various C-135 and Boeing 707 test aircraft.
Coe, Conolly, Harding, Harris, LaRocca, North, Spring and Wilkerson
Swords and Hilt Weapons
1996, ISBN: 1-56619-249-8
Historical Armed Combat Association (Angelo, Sydney)
Introduction to Frederico Ghisliero’s Rapier Text of 1587 (On-line Article)
Ramon Martinez (Maestro)
The Demystification of the Spanish School (On-line Article, in 3 parts)
F. Braun McAsh
Ye Arte & Practif of Ye Rapier, A manual of Historic Rapier Combat, Second Ed.
R.R. Palmer & Joel Colton
A History of the Modern World, to 1815, 6th Ed
1984, ISBN: 0-394-33599-6 (vol 1)
The Mysterious Circle (On-line Article)
The Book of Five Rings (Thomas Cleary translation)
1994, ISBN 0-87773-998-6
Bibliography for the Realistic Wounds Class as taught by HL John James MacCrimmon
William Ernoehazy Jr., (Don Giovanni di Fiamma)
Reflections on Blow Acknowledgement for the Honorable Duelist in the SCA (On-line Article)
F. Braun McAsh
Ye Arte & Practif of Ye Rapier, A manual of Historic Rapier Combat, Second Ed.
Brief Instructions to my Paradoxes of Defense: Admonitions to the Gentlemen
and Brave Gallants of Great Britain against Quarrels and Brawls