Rapier Combat and the Society for Creative Anachronism

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Introduction

By Tivar Moondragon

This article is intended to give a brief look at rapier combat as it relates to the Society for Creative Anachronism, and answer some of the most-asked questions about its history, safety and relationship to the SCA.

History

The rapier developed in the mid-fifteenth century, as an ornamental civilian sidearm that was commonly worn by the upper and middle classes. To quote from the introduction to A.V.B. Norman's The Rapier and Small-Sword:

Claude Blair has suggested an entirely different derivation for the word, and has connected it with the Spanish 'espada ropera' meaning robe sword, the sword worn in civilian dress. This phrase is found in the Relacion de los inventarios que se ficieron en los bienes muebles que tenia el duque don Alvaro de Zuniga [Tivar's rough translation: inventory list of the goods owned by Duke Alvaro de Zuniga] of 1468, "Otra espada ropera dorada y avirada" [another espada ropera (dress sword), gilded and very sharp]..."
The phrase 'espada ropera' is presumably the origin of the French 'epee rapiere' which first appears in 1474; "Icellui donna au suppliant de la dite espee rapiere sur la teste." [I've never studied French, but I've been told by a French SCA member that it translates to "He smacked the beggar on the head with the rapier."]
It occurs in a payment made on the 8th of December 1505 to Robert Selkyrk, cutler to James IV of Scotland, "for bynding of ane riding sword, ane rappyer, and binding of Wallas sword with cordis of silk..."

It's worth noting that even at this early date, "sword" and "rapier" meant two different types of weapon.

The earliest surviving book on rapier fighting is Marozzo's Il Duello, published in 1536. Many other such books were written in subsequent years.


A common misconception about historical rapier fighting is that it was mostly an activity of street thugs, tavern brawlers or pirates. While it is probable that rapiers were used in street brawls (along with any other weapon that might be available) a quick survey of portraiture of the period shows rapiers on many a noble hip.

The rapier that was repaired for James IV if Scotland has already been mentioned; there are a number of rapiers listed in the 1547 post-mortem inventory of the goods of Henry VIII of England. The records of the London Masters of Defence list numerous prizes and challenges using rapier and dagger (as well as rapier and cloak, rapier and target, long sword, staff, pike, etc.) and fought before King Edward VI, Queen Mary and king Philip, and Queen Elisabeth.

Or consider this example, where Queen Elisabeth is being escorted to a wedding. About half the gentlemen wearing rapiers are Knights of the Garter, England's most prestigious order of knighthood.

"Queen Elizabeth Attends a Wedding in Blackfriars" by Marcus Gheeraerts, 1600

In the SCA

Some form of rapier combat has been a part of the SCA since the First Tournament. Bouts were fought there, using modern fencing equipment and rules. Poul Anderson (Sir Bela of Eastmarch) commented in an article about the SCA written in 1969 (A.S. IV) that "At present, some people are experimenting with rapier and dagger."

However, with a few notable exceptions like the Carolingia Rapier Company in the East Kingdom, and Ansteorra's Legion of Swashbucklers, rapier combat tended to exist on the fringes of the formal structure of the Society until September of A.S. XIV (1979) when the Board of Directors formally recognized rapier combat as an ancillary activity of the SCA.

Since the Board's recognition, rapier combat has grown slowly but steadily throughout the SCA. As of this writing--November of AS L (2015)--rapier combat is an accepted fighting style in all 20 kingdoms of the SCA.

Safety

There are a number of rumors about the safety level of both SCA rapier combat and modern fencing. Most of them are just that: rumors. In over thirty-five years of SCA rapier fighting, there have been two injuries that were serious enough to put the fighter in the hospital overnight--a penetration of a fighter's pectoral muscle by a broken epee, due to a massive application of Murphy's Law and a cracked larynx due to an over-hard hit from a schlager blade during a melee at Estrella War. There have been a couple of scary but comparatively minor incidents--a penetration of a fighter's forearm by a broken epee and a penetration of a fighter's hand by a Del Tin blade that had lost its tip and punched through his leather glove. Most other injuries have been of the twisted knee or sprained ankle variety.

In modern fencing, there have been deaths from broken blades, but they are extremely rare, averaging out to about one per decade (even though there are many more fencers worldwide than SCA rapier fighters and their level of competitiveness is, as a generalization, much higher.) I have hard data on eleven such deaths. One in 1892 described: here. Seven listed in section 4.2 here, one in the Ukraine in 2004, one in Japan in 2005 and one in Poland in 2009 here. Most of these deaths were due to broken blades hitting fighters wearing protective gear that would not have met the SCA's armor requirements. Statistically speaking, one is more likely to be struck by lightning while playing golf (and far more likely to be killed in a car wreck) than killed by a broken fencing blade.

The protective clothing worn in SCA rapier combat is specifically designed and tested to withstand hits from a broken or untipped blade. Anything that cannot survive that test may not be used for rapier armor. Weapons and equipment are inspected prior to fighting, and anything that appears unsafe is not allowed on the field.