Classical Fencing: Is Distance a Parry?

The parry by distance is executed by a retreat timed to cause the opponent’s attack to fall short, ending the attack. The parry is followed immediately by a riposte. However, some reject the status of the parry by distance as a parry and deny that the following riposte is truly a riposte. Although the default in studying classical fencing is always to be consistent with the school and Master studied, the Classical Academy of Arms believes the parry by distance and riposte is a valid theoretical construct that should be understood.

Luigi Barbasetti (1932) stated “any movement that renders an opponent’s attack harmless is a parry.” Included in this is the step back. Barbasetti’s characterization was consistent with Masaniello Parise’s earlier description (1884, Holzman’s translation): “from whatever fencing action, it is possible to defend oneself with the parry by distance which is performed by retreating one step.”

  • Defensive actions are typically described as either avoidances or blade parries.
  • The offensive action after a parry is commonly called a riposte, however it is delivered.
  • The flow of combat in the classical period is opponent’s offense, defender’s defense against the offense, defender’s immediate offense after the defense. This construction of the fencing phrase is a near universal constant in the period, and is a tactically coherent model, expressed as attack, parry-riposte.

The contrary view is neither the parry nor the riposte in the parry by distance are what they say they are. Rather, in this modern view the fencer “pulls distance” (takes a short retreat step) and then “takes over the attack.”

  • The argument is that a parry results only when there is blade contact, whether by tac-au-tac (the beat parry), blade opposition, or the flying parry. This is certainly the dominant view of what a parry was; the majority of classical period texts readily available in English do not address the idea of retreating and then attacking; one parried in place and riposted. Deladrier (1948) went so far as to say that a beginner who learns to retreat in front of an attack will lose confidence in his parries.
  • Because there is no parry, the action after the fencer retreats cannot be a riposte. It must be a new attack.

Although it is tempting to think of this as an argument over word choice, that misses the point. Many sources based on the French school generally ignore the retreat as defense against the attack. This may have been a cultural value, reflected in the term Ninth Parry or Coward’s Parry (an English language term of uncertain age), that appeared as a consensus that a retreat step was a dishonorable way to avoid an attack.A convenience sample suggests sources that do discuss the parry by distance are Italian or Italian school based. This terminology reflected the concept that a parry defeats the attack and links the riposte to the parry by distance. This is different from the idea that the defender is now starting a separate attack. The link is important because it considers the relationship between the retreat, the opponent’s actions, and the riposte to hit against a recovery as a unified flow conducted with same tactical considerations as a blade-based parry and riposte. Understanding this construct provides a valuable perspective for your fencing.

Walter Green is a Classical Fencing Master Trainer credentialed by the Classical Academy of Arms and certified as a modern Maitre d’Armes by the International Fencing Coaches Association and the Academie d’Armes Internationale. He serves as the director of the Classical Academy of Arms  and manages the Academy’s online credentialing program. He currently is managing the Academy’s self-study for accreditation as a center for coaching education by the National Committee for the Accreditation of Coaching Education.

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