I have written recently about the risks and rewards in dueling situations, and how hard it is to keep a proper balance between them in a modern context, while studying behaviours of the past. Interestingly some of the same sort of problems can occur for specific training situations, where past outlook and modern perceptions differ markedly. A good example of this is training with sharp swords.
In the modern context, paired training with sharp swords is conducted with much care and precaution, often at a slower pace. It is deemed to be particularly good to teach control and foster calmness. This is for a very good reason: sharp swords dial up the level of danger, and we absolutely want our training to remain safe.
We have very little discussion of the details of training methods in source texts, but that topic is discussed by Viggiani:
ROD: […] take up your sword, Conte.
CON: How so, my sword? Isn’t it better to take one meant for practice?
ROD: Not now, because with those practice weapons it is not possible to acquire valor or prowess of the heart, nor ever to learn a perfect schermo.
CON: I believe the former, but the latter I doubt. What is the reason, Rodomonte, that it is not possible to learn (so you say) a perfect schermo with that sort of weapon? Can’t you deliver the same blows with that, as with one which is edged?
ROD: I would not say now that you cannot do all those ways of striking, of warding, and of guards, with those weapons, and equally with these, but you will do them imperfectly with those, and most perfectly with these edged ones, because if (for example) you ward a thrust put to you by the enemy, beating aside his sword with a mandritto, so that that thrust did not face your breast, while playing with spade da marra [blunt sword], it will suffice you to beat it only a little, indeed, for you to learn the schermo; but if they were spade da filo [sharp swords], you would drive that mandritto with all of your strength in order to push well aside the enemy’s thrust. Behold that this would be a perfect blow, done with wisdom, and with promptness, unleashed with more length, and thrown with more force, that it would have been with those other arms. How will you fare, Conte, if you take perfect arms in your hand, and not stand with all your spirit, and with all your intent judgment?
CON: Yes, but it is a great danger to train with arms that puncture; if I were to make the slightest mistake, I could do enormous harm. Nonetheless we will indeed do as is more pleasing to you, because you will be on guard not to harm me, and I will be certain to parry, and I will pay constant attention to your point in order to know which blow may come forth from your hand, which is necessary in a good warrior.
Viggiani, 1575, trans. William Jherek Swanger
It is important, in my opinion, not just to focus on the fact that they were training with sharp swords and with blunt swords, but also to note the intended pedagogical effects of the exercise (which is where I have put the emphasis in the excerpt). Viggiani’s goal when arguing for sharp sword use seems to be to obtain genuine reactions in terms of commitment in the defences. You could even say that Viggiani’s described technique with sharp swords is actually worse than with blunts. Indeed, if only a little force and motion is strictly necessary to defend, why use more force and beat the thrust further away? This only gives more opportunities to the opponent. One possible explanation is that when facing a sharp sword, you have to keep a bigger safety margin.
Whatever the reason, this emphasis on strength and promptness is quite the opposite from what is found in the modern context with sharps. This is especially the case if instead of a simple drill, people engage in freeplay. In these circumstances, it is wisest to diminish speed and use little force, to safeguard against imprevisible bounces or the sudden collapse of covers. It is manifest from this text that in Viggiani’s time, it was acceptable and expected that a higher energy would be used with sharp swords, precisely because of the increased risks.
This simple example shows that replicating the material training conditions of the past does not necessarily allow to understand the art better. The effect of training conditions on behaviours is intrisically linked to the social and cultural context, which has markedly changed. It might be wiser to work in reverse: first identify the attributes of the art, then design modern training conditions that allow us to focus on these attributes. This does not preclude research on past training modes, in as much as they can inform us about the attributes that were trained, when detailed advice such as Viggiani’s can be found.