This document was sent to me by Daniel Willens of Evanston, IL. He has given me permission in writing to publish this work on the web. He retains the copyright for the work and asks that before it is published elsewhere that he be contacted first. Please excuse any typing errors. I transcribed the work from paper copy. The transcription is in progress and eventually will have graphics included when I have time to scan them in. -- William Wilson
The Mysterious Circle School
by Daniel Willens
"He does it all, by lines, and angles, colonel. By parallels, and sections, has his diagrams."
Ben Johnson -- The New Inne, (II,v)
At the turn of the sixteenth Century the Spanish were considered to be the greatest swordsmen in the world. Cool, calm and graceful, they paced elegantly through their duels as though treading a solemn measure of the Dance of Death. Even George Silver, the reactionary champion of traditional English swordplay over the itlianate style of rapier play, paid grudging acknowledgement to the Spanish school, "wherein a man with small practise in a verie short time may become perfect. (1)" In contrast to the complex moves and strategems of the Italians, the Spanish had a single flat footed stance and two basic positions, or "wards," for the weapon, a single rapier. Silver writes, in his Paradoxes of Defence, 1599, that the Spanish swordsmen "stand as brave as they can with their bodies straight upright, narrow spaced, with their feet continually moving, as if they were in a dance, holding forth their arms and rapiers very straight against the face or body of their enemy. (2)"
As viewed by an outsider like Silver, the Spanish school seemed to recommend itself by its simplicity. Unfortunately for those who actually undertook to learn the art, however, Spanish rapier play was an incredibly complex intellectual task, calling upon a knowledge of geometry and metaphysics for its true mastery. The fencer's every move was choreographed along a "mysterious circle," with its myriad chords and diameters. In contrast to Silver's brief desciption of the style, witness these directions from a proponent of the school:
"At the same instant that Alexander drops his foot on the point marked G, Zacharia steps forwards and delivers an 'imbrocade' at his breast. The adversaries having previously been on guard at the first instance with their swords held straight and parallel, Alexander began to work round in order to master his 'contrary's' blade on the second instance X, on the inner side of the diameter. This doing, at the same moment he places his right foot on the letter G, and proceeds in a circular manner with the left, Zacharia bears on him, carrying his right foot inside the circle as far as the letter S, on the inner side of the diameter, forward on the right foot, and rounding the arm by the same action so as to turn the exterior branch of the sowrd vertically upwards. Thus he delivers the imbrocade on his adversary's breast, proceeding further by carrying the left foot outside, on the inside of the quadrangle (3)."
Need;less to say, there is a complexity here which escaped george Silver's perspicuity. Before attempting to penetrate the mysteries of this charmed circle, it might be wise to examine the history of the style, which continued to be practiced in Spain as late as the eighteenth century.
The first Spanish master to describe the "mysterious circle" in print was Hieronimo de Caranca, who set the tone for his followers in the title of his 1569 book: De la Philosophia de las Armas, "On the Philosophy of Arms." To Caranca, fencing was no mere physical exercise, nor even a necessary skill for a chivalrous gentleman. The use of the sword implied an entire philosophy, an alchemical distillation of Christian mysticism and newly re-discovered classical science.
The dance-like nature of his style fit the elegant airs of the courtly renaissance milieu, and the relative lightness of the new rapier permitted a straight armed stance and provided the sort of control needed for accurate point work. Spain had been the seat of many of the most famous gladiatorial schools during Roman times, and it is possible that Caranca was influenced by the tradition that Roman fighting men owed their lethal effectiveness to their ability to use the Gladius equally well for both cuts and thrusts (5). Unlike some of the Italian masters of the time, Caranca did not abandon the use of the cut altogether, but understanding the geometric superiority of the thrust over the cut, tended to favor the former over the latter.
Don Luys Pacheco de Narvaez was Caranca's most famous pupil. ith the publication of his own Libro de las Grandezas de la Espada around 1600, "Don Lewis of Madrid" achieved international fame as "the sole master now of the world (4)." Narvaez' influence spread out from the peninsula, in competition with the ideas of Italian masters such as Camillo Agrippa, and Giacomo di Grassi, to find fertile ground in France.
Louis XIII's marriage to Anne of Austria prepared french soil for the transplantation of Spanish fashions; as the daughter of king Phillip III of Spain, Anne had very close ties to the Spanish Empire. Girard Thibault was the most notable Frenchman to champion the cause of the mysterious circle. In 1623 he published his Academie de l'Espee, ou se demonstrent par Reigles Mathematiques, sur le fondement d'un Cercle Mysterieux, La Theorie et Pratique des vrais et Jusqu'a present incognus secreta du maniement Des Armes, a pied a Cheval: "the Academy of the Sword, wherein is demonstrated by Mathematical Rules, founded upon a Mysterious Cricle, The Theory and practise of the true and Hitherto unknown secrets of the management of Arms, on foot and on Horse." In Gallic style, this work expanded the theoretical framework of the Spanish school and gave the mysterious circle a brief continental vogue.
Although roundly derided by modern fencing historians as well as contemporary rival masters as being wildly impractical, the "Mysterious Circle" school of fencing must have had somethingin its favor in order to have gained its reputation and maintain its existence as long as it did. Arthur Wise's suggestion that swordsmen of this school were good because of all the practise with weapons they had to put in just to master the choreography, though not without some perit, is not sufficient (6). Clearly, the 'Mysterious Circle" school of fencing had some greater appeal to the renaissance gentlemen beyond its effectiveness in actual combat.
The renaissance was a period of great instability; the world view that had comforted Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire was itself collapsing. The authority of the Church had been challenged by the Reformation, the old feudal order was falling to gunpowder, and even the size and shape of the world was being revised. it was necessary for society to re-orient itself, to find a new place for humanity in the rapidly changing cosmos. Whilst some thinkers looked forward to the coming "reformation of the whole wide world," others were rediscovering the heritage of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
The concept of a "Mysterious Circle" would not have been new to a person of that era. Even now, we have a superstitious recollection of a circle on the floor whose circumference is death to cross: the magic circle used by sorcerers when summoning spirits. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, ceremonial magic was being practised in earnest. Dr. John Dee, the most learned man in Queen Elizabeth's England and the probable model for Shakespeare's Prospero, was actually performing "scientific experiments" in communicating with the spirit world. This is not to imply that the (no doubt) devoutly Catholic Spanish fencing masters were dabbling in the occult, but rather that their theoretical framework was grounded in the intellectual currents of the time.
The Circle, as anyone who has read C. G. Jung can tell you, is a symbol of the cosmos. We perceive the world as stretching around us as an infinitely vast sphere, divided into six directions: front, back, left, right, up and down. It is thus natural to perceive the cosmos as a six-fold sphere or a circle divided into four quadrants; it is a primal "archetypal image," in mythological terms, it is a mandala, a cosmic diagram.
In the renaissance, it was believed that the universe was a series of nested spiritual layers, that the individual human being was a "microcosm," a "little world" that mirrored the greater "macrocosm." This is the significanceof those innumerable renaissance drawings of a man superimposed on a series of circles portraying the solar system. An event in the greater world, an eclipse or other celestial phenomenon, for example, would have a corresponding occurance in the microcosm, the death of a king, say. The magician's circle was thus an attempt to create the world in small, in order to achieve effects on the greater world. The "Mysterious Circle" of the Spanish school might likewise be viewed as an attempt to create a miniturized version of the universe in order to ritually enact the cosmic dance of life versus death, good versus evil, thus invoking divine authorization for what otherwise would be mere manslaughter (7).
but the "Mysterious Circle's" appeal was not entirely metaphysical. Amongst the gems un-earthed from classical learning was the science of geometry, a powerful tool for exploring the nature of the world. Of course, the renaissance mind, obsessed as it was with cosmology, found it difficult to separate the mathematical from the magical. Dr. Dee, for example, was a celebrated mathematician as well as a magus, and sought to apply Euclid to a bewildering variety of fields. typically, his lengthy geometric discussion of the optics of a concave mirror in his propaedeumata Aphoristica (1558) is focussed, as it were, on a means of concentrating "astral influences" for magical purposes (8), belying the fact that he had used the same principles to construct a reflecting telescope for military purposes (9). Thus it would be unfair to dismiss the "mysterious circle" as superstitious without examining the soundness of its science.
To understand the "scientific" basis of the school, it is necessary to examine the state-of-the-art in swordsmanship at the time. As noted above, the advent of the rapier made swordplay a matter of skill and finesse rather than strength and endurance. the fencing strip was still in the future; whether the combat was held in the open or in a confined space, neither opponent would feel obliged to limit movement to a narrow, linear space. Indeed, there was a great strategic value to moving about the field of combat so as to take advantage of lighting and topography; this sort of fencing was jeux de terrain, a "topography game."
Since the modern fencing lunge was still the closely guarded secret of a few Italian fencing masters, attacks were usually made on a "pass," that is, the fencer would extend his weapon and take an oblique step towards his opponent. Anyone who strayed within the length of a single pass of his enemy's weapon would be in grave danger. Just as a modern fencing coach might attach an elastic cord to a fencer's waist in such a way that it would be slack when the fencer is within striking distance of his or her opponent, so a sixteenth century master might draw a circle on the floor that would indicate when the swordsman was within a single pass of his opponent. the geometry of the 'Mystic Circle" school is, in fact, quite correct: the "danger zone" between two fencers who are not limited to a narrow fencing strip generates a circle one fencing step longer than the extended arm and blade in diameter. Any incursion into the zone would be potentially fatal., and all successful attacks must be made along a chord within this circle. Since the rapier was not light enough to allow rapid parries, the best defence wold be to "void," or remove one's self, by counterstepping along an imaginary chord that would restore the oriinal distance, and, incidently, define a new circle.
The Mysterious Circle School's claim to infallibility is therefore not without justification: in the final analysis, the victor in a rapier bout could almost invariably be proven to have conformed to the geometric principles described above. Unfortunately, in the heat of the mortal combat it requires a great deal of calm detachment to think with such geometrical precision, and even then it is no guarantee against a suicidal attack or a craftily kicked face-full of sand! Thus, viewed from the harsh vantage of the real world, the Magic Circle School's claims appear to reside in that fencer's El Dorado, where the Secret magic Attack and the Universal Parry make an uncertain art into a perfect science.
1. Arthur Wise, The History and Art of Personal Combat, (London: Hugh Evelyn Ltd.) 1971, p. 107.
2. Craig Turner & Tony Soper, Methods and Practices of Elizabethan Swordplay (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press) 1990, p. 90.
3. Thibault, quoted in Wise, op cit, p. 111.
4. Ben Johnson, The New Inn, II,v.
5. Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, the Book of the Sword, (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc) 1987, p. 255 et passim.
6. Wise, op cit, p. 53.
7. The renaissance duel is thus affirmed as being a continuation of the medieval "trial by combat," in which the contention is settled by God's granting victory to the righteous, who coincidently always seemed to be the stronger.
8. Wayne Shumaker, John Dee on Astronomy (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press) 1978.
9. Or perhaps his student Thomas Digges, the military engineer, did.