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Thibault – Chapter Four

On The Posture Of The Straight Line

This is a somewhat clunky chapter, needing to be partly read with Chapter 3, and suggesting that a good editor would have helped with the structure at this point. There are three distinct sections in this chapter that are not entirely related but also not quite separate enough to warrant their own chapters.

The first section explains what is going on with Alexander in Chapter 3, explaining and finishing the partially complete actions that are carried forward to meet Zachary at first instance. First there is a movement forward that brings the sword up from beneath to meet Zachary in the straight line at first instance, reaching the hilt, with the sword finishing parallel and below. Next are two examples where Zachary is in the oblique angle, meeting him both inside and outside the arm. Finally there is an example where Alexander moves forward without leading with the blade to meet the straight line, which is ill-advised.

This is the first example, by the way, of Thibault showing something in some detail, and then saying “don’t do this”. While it’s a generally accepted best practice in teaching to not show students the wrong way, Thibault’s practice is to explain why an action is wrong, and I suspect that this was a practical exercise in his teaching.

He discusses briefly why the obtuse angle is powerful, using standard Destreza theory of it providing for a strong natural angle, and emphasises that if Zachary is in the obtuse, Alexander must meet him in the obtuse so as not to give away an advantage.

The second part of this chapter is a discourse on the value of the straight line, and is a very important statement of the key parts of his method. There is an explicit exhortation to understand what is going on with the straight line because it is the key to everything else he discusses, and he does admit that the student will initially find it tiring and uncomfortable, because we seldom stand with our arm extended that way carrying a weight.

Thibault also is adamant that it is important to understand that while the book’s exercises are performed with Alexander waiting in the straight line, this is for the purposes of learning, not for fighting:

…when one’s life is at stake, there is no guard, high or low, long or short, no posture of the body and no way of holding the sword, which is qualified by all possible advantages, and in which one ought to stop to await the attack. It is true that this book is full of postures of the straight line, but this is only for the sake of instruction. When it comes to practice, I would have our student abandon all this…let him continue always to move, using a free and natural pace, toward one or the other of the two sides, avoiding above all the line of the diameter where the body of the enemy is drawn up…as soon as he comes into measure, let him assure himself of his opponent’s sword, by attacking it to subject it, or by binding it, or by covering it, or by carrying out an estocade of first intention along it, if this is convenient…

I strongly recommend reading this section of the chapter, if nothing else, as he makes a very reasoned argument about the mechanics and geometry of the straight line posture being a very sound defensive posture. My own poor experience compels me to agree with his arguments: I have found that if I consistently present the straight line posture along the diameter to my opponents, it is difficult for them to overcome without either throwing themselves onto the point of my sword, or opening themselves up considerably. (Of course, generally I fail to prevent a double hit, or take advantage of the opening, which is why younger, fitter and more skilled fencers regularly take me apart). Again, my experience has been that if my opponent is able to close distance while leaving the diameter, then it is game over for me, as the straight line becomes quite vulnerable under those circumstances. In this chapter Thibault answers to this somewhat, suggesting that Alexander needs to be dextrous and athletic to meet the threat. It’s encouraging that he’s thought a lot about the problem, but slightly less encouraging that part of the answer is “be faster”.

His discussion of the straight line posture emphasises that the foot position is quite different to what is common in “Italian” styles, and somewhat uncommon in Destreza practice, in that the right foot is not pointing toward the opponent along the diameter, but instead is more or less aligned with the curve of the notional circle on which it rests. In other words, there is a sense of standing side-on to your opponent, as though preparing to stroll clockwise around the shared circle. It is important for Thibault’s practice that this positioning of the feet and structure of the body is a simple, natural, standing posture.

This cannot be stressed enough: if you are not working your practice from the straight line with a strongly profiled posture, with your weight simply and naturally evenly distributed, and the sword held with the cross-guard horizontal, it is not Thibault.

It is here that he admits that this posture can be tiring and confronting if you are not used to it, which I agree with completely: particularly in the modern world we are not used to just standing upright and carrying a weight in the extended arm. I am still struggling with a way to visualise this, and to strengthen the posture, with limited success so far. I have two thoughts that seem to work for me, but your experience may be different. First I think that the arm and head posture are essentially what you get if you stand upright and simply point at something directly to your right with an extended arm – anyone can do that! The trouble is that we don’t do that for any length of time, and the body structure we use for it is generally wrong: the thing that I observe when people try to do this (and I do it myself as I tire) is that their shoulder rises up around their right ear, and then the wrist cocks downward, leaving the sword point lower than the hilt.

I don’t know enough physiology to understand why this happens, although it feels like we are using the wrong muscles to lift the arm. One suggestion that I’ve had from people who do a lot of archery is to use the muscles in the back to support and position the arm, rather than the muscles of the shoulder. That sounds a bit cryptic, but if you could imagine tearing your shirt off, Hulk style, with a manly roar to expose your manly chest, then you should feel the muscles of your back engaging to lift the arm, rather than the shoulder.

The chapter finishes with a brief discussion on the First Instance, and one of the only descriptions of how to deal with swords of different lengths. There is a simple recipe: if their sword is longer than yours, first instance is where they can just reach the cross of your sword. If their sword is shorter than yours, first instance is where you can just reach their cross.

I will leave you with Thibault’s own closing words:

I know well that we have several times repeated some points, but the utility of the subject will be our excuse, considering that a matter of such great importance deserves to be treated exactly; it being expedient to arrest to contemplation of the reader, on order to imitate in this way the avaricious, who lend their money for long terms, in order to receive it back with double interest.

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