Tea Tray Bouts For Classical Fencing

In the 1800s some fencing masters were reputed to teach lessons with their students standing in a tea tray. This unusual practice was designed to force disciplined blade work and eliminate reliance on the retreat as a defense. It comes from an era in which fencing was becoming increasingly distant from the realities of the dueling ground, and in which conventional conduct ruled the sport. For example, many fencers believed that it was impossible, or at least unmannerly, to start a phrase from an absence of blade. Anything other than engagement meant that you were doing something very strange with your foil, something that certainly was not fencing. And in some circles there was general agreement that a retreat to avoid an attack was a sign of bad manners, at the least, or outright cowardice, at the worst.

In this environment, the tea tray actually makes sense. It forces engagement out of simple self-protection and it eliminates both the opportunity to retreat and the need to advance. So the classical fencers in my salle (fencing school) decided to see whether it is possible to fence a bout with both fencers figuratively standing in tea trays.

First the rules:

(1) Fencers come on guard at medium distance. If there is an appreciable difference in the lunge length of the two fencers, the distance is set by the lunge length of the fencer whose lunge is shorter.

(2) Fencers start from engagement in either 6th or 4th. Sixth is a more modern choice, dating from the 1890s or later. Fourth is an older choice, being commonly preferred by some masters at least until the 1880s.

(3) All blade actions in the classical lexicon may be used – which includes all techniques you will find in any fencing textbook, excluding the flick.

(4) The only footwork permitted is the lunge and the backward recovery from the lunge. Retreat or advance is penalized with 1 hit.

(5) In keeping with practice of the period the fencers may fence for a set number of hits with no time limit, or for a time limit with no set number of hits.

The outcome was very interesting. The classical fencers really enjoyed the format. It is challenging; we rarely stop to assess how much of our fencing depends on movement and how little a role the blade actually plays. Eliminate the movement, and you have a different game. With no movement except the lunge very few simple attacks work. The emphasis now is on complex blade actions with multipart compound attacks, compound actions prepared by attacks on the blade, and chains of actions using taking the blade. Tactical preparation through well conceived linkages between phrases becomes critical. Eyes open fencing becomes the norm for the successful fencer.

If you are a classical fencer, consider adding the tea tray format to your bouting. I think you will enjoy the challenge.