Grappling in Bolognese swordsmanship

During one of last week’s training sessions we incorporated wrestling, or presas, holds into the regular sword training. This is not something we do that often, since the main focus of my classes is in fencing at sword range. It is still a necessary skill to practice every so often.


The way we train Bolognese swordsmanship is relatively safe, most common injuries being things like sprained ankles due to bad foot placement in drill or free fencing, but once grappling is introduced with takedowns everything is suddenly slightly more risky. The first precaution is (of course) the right training attitude, where the aim is not to hurt training partners, and the second is the ability to take a fall without hurting oneself.

I personally love falling practice, rolling on the ground and learning to negotiate with the surroundings in all sorts of ways and positions. It is good exercise and has many benefits, but I understand how not everybody might enjoy it. Same goes with wrestling in general, some love it (my experience is that most people do, they just might not know it if they haven’t tried) but for some it is uncomfortable. Still, close-quarters are an integral part of Bolognese swordsmanship and need to be practiced at least every now and then.

The examples in the Bolognese texts render an idea of how grips, holds, locks, throws and takedowns can be applied with or without various weapons, but there aren’t that many specific descriptions on how these actions should be performed. Achille Marozzo’s presas against an attack with the dagger are the most informative, but even they need to be tweaked a bit to apply them to sword fighting.

This can be a positive thing though, as it gives me freedom as an instructor to let the students play and apply any possible unarmed martial arts background they have into their swordsmanship. This speeds up their learning and creates individual ways of executing the close quarter’s actions, which at this stage of the interpretation process is valuable. At some point it might be that I choose to pick a few basic grapples that I will introduce to all students as being “strictly Bolognese”, but I haven’t yet focused on this.

When teaching, I tend to avoid using the term fall much, since at least to me it has the ring of something being out of control to it. Instead I tell people to go to ground, lie down, sit down or something like this. Usually this results with smoother and less painful encounters with the floor. If one is gentle with the floor, so will the floor be gentle with him.

After getting comfortable with the element of the ground we did takedowns gradually building up to taking an armed person down first without weapons in hand and then with weapons in hand and finally doing this after a presa in the context of a simple attack-parry-drill.

To warm up the class had started with a short phase of free fencing, just for me to assess whether any of the students were actually preferring grappling to begin with, and the results were negative. Not a single presa or grapple occurred. This of course is just fine, and exactly how I have trained people and what I generally expect of them: going into grapples in Bolognese swordsmanship is basically something done as a last resort. Sure, a well-placed takedown, kick, punch or a lock can be laudable, but not as the preferred method of operation. Arbitrarily I could say that maybe if one exchange out of ten involved a   presa in a friendly practice match, it would be great.

Before reassessing with free fencing at the end of the class we did an exercise where the students worked in groups of three, with one person in the center defending against the alternating attacks of the other two. This kind of drill format is by the way one of the best things I have learned during my time in HEMA. I learned it from Guy Windsor, don’t know if he originally invented it or if he applied it from other martial arts, but it rocks. Almost any drill can be brought into a completely new level of liveliness by introducing it to a group of three, where one person is the main focus of the group at a time. I will be teaching my take on this concept as part of my upcoming class in Longpoint. Anyway, the catch in this particular drill was that the standard modus operandi was for the person in the middle to parry and riposte with the sword either by thrust or cut, but when I yelled “NOW” they had to immediately proceed to take their opponent down, regardless of at which stage their defense was at that time (since there were two groups, I had no way of coordinating a specific moment in time when I yelled).

This forced the students to make an immediate switch from fencing to wrestling. This was supposed to fix something that at least I personally find preventing me from using the grapples in free fencing even if I wanted to: failing to act immediately and with determination and speed when grapples were needed.

During the free fencing at the end of the class I suggested the students to try closing in, or forcing their opponents to grapple against them, just to try it out. They were surprisingly keen about this, and suddenly we saw a huge amount of grappling during the bouts. Maybe the focus shifted even a tad too much, since we had a few occasions of swords being dropped in order to move into grappling. But then, even doing that is documented in the Bolognese literature…

In the end of the day I think it is useful to do this kind of class every now and then. With Bolognese, I wouldn’t do grappling every class, but it doesn’t do justice to the tradition to forget about it altogether. Besides, I want my students to be able to face confidently any fencer from other traditions, who might be more focused on closing in. But this isn’t really beginner material. I’m lucky to now have a group of experienced, keen students how I can have kit up and have a go at it with these kind of exercises. Their basic skills and understanding of the system are now good enough that they can apply what they know, literally embellishing the art as they express it. I enjoy teaching the basics as well, but working with a group of more experienced people presents a completely different set of challenges and possibilities — something I have longed for since the day we started the group.