Jeronimo de Carranza's "Philosophy" of Arms

This paper was delivered on April 9th, 2005 at Cambridge, UK for the Renaissance Society of America's Annual Meeting. Synopsis: Although later misunderstood as a ponderous and impractical edifice, the system of fencing developed by the sixteenth-century Spanish nobleman Jeronimo de Carranza was, in fact, a very practical method of personal combat—albeit one he explained using the language of Scholastic intellectual orthodoxy.

Don Jeronimo de Carranza was a product of his time. Based on his pupil—and later critic—Don Luis Pacheco de Narvaez’ assertion that Carranza’s 1569 work, de la Filosofia de las Armas y de su Destreza y la Aggression y Defensa Cristiana was completed when Carranza was thirty years old, Carranza was born in Seville in about 1539.[1] His life thus coincided with Spain’s peak as a world power, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the great wars of religion, and the ultra-conservative reign of Phillip II. Though Italian humanism and reverence for classical antiquity manifest themselves in Carranza’s writing, the influence of the medieval Scholastic tradition is also present in his work.

One way this conservative spirit manifested itself in the Spain in which Carranza lived and worked was through a glorification of the ethos of chivalry. For instance, Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo’s epic romance Amadis de Gaula was published in 1508 and enjoyed great popularity through Carranza’s lifetime. Carranza’s life and career were marked by chivalric ideals as well. He was of sufficient noble rank and fame to be named a knight, and then Commander, of the Order for Christ. In 1605, the same year Cervantes published the first book of his Don Quixote, Carranza received an honorary crown from his native city of Seville. Cervantes himself had nothing but praise for Carranza. In his Song of Calliope, Cervantes holds Carranza up as a gentleman who has struck an equal balance between Apollo and Mars. Spain also sought to spread its culture and the one true Catholic faith) as much as it sought to preserve it, and Carranza was very much an active participant in this. In 1589 he was sent to the New World as governor of Honduras, and (according to Leguina’s Bibliografía), upon his return to Spain, dedicated himself to his studies and religious practice.

What Carranza is best remembered for today, of course, is his book on fencing, de la Filosofia de las Armas y de su Destreza y la Aggression y Defensa Cristiana (“On the Philosophy of Arms and its Skill, and Christian Offense and Defense”). First published in a small print run in 1569 for the unfortunate Duke of Medina-Sidonia, later commander of the Spanish Armada, de la Filosofia de las Armas did not receive wide distribution until its second printing in 1582 in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. In any case, its intended audience, in keeping with Spain’s obsessive concern for rank and blood, was no doubt limited, as it sets out an art explicitly intended to be learned only by the highest nobility. Carranza’s work reflected the concerns of his stratum of society: The “Christian offense and defense” he speaks of is not for soldierly use on the battlefield in one of St. Augustine’s just conflicts between nation-states, but rather, for the use of individual’s personal sidearm to settle private quarrels and for self-defense.[2] (Note, however, that duels were far less frequent in Spain, and far mor prosecuted, than they were in France or Italy.) The weapon Carranza was concerned with was not the knightly sword intended for the battlefield, but the civilian espada ropera, translated as “dress sword” or “sword of the robe”—now termed the rapier—which by the preponderance of evidence seems to have been developed in Spain in the late fifteenth century. (This type of sword, according to A.V.B. Norman, was first referred to in the 1468 post-mortem inventory of the goods of Duke Alvaro de Zuniga.)[3]

De la Filosofia de las Armas is a distillation of the spirits running through Carranza’s society and life: chivalric martial culture, Catholicism, courtly ideals, obsession with rank and purity blood, the will to conquer and exert power, and a love for classical learning—for the most distinguishing characteristic of Carranza’s invention (and the one most perplexing to historians of fencing) is that its principles are explicitly set out in terms derived from Aristotle and Euclid. Rather than following the common methods of fencing of the time, which he termed “esgrima vulgar, meaning “vulgar fencing” and regarded as haphazard collections of tricks, Carranza sought to devise a scientific approach to swordsmanship. This, he termed la verdadera destreza, which can be loosely translated as “the true art and skill.” Carranza states that he has written his book in order to open the secrets of true swordsmanship, which was, in his opinion, in a poor state in his time, and very carefully goes on to say that in discovering the errors of the esgrima vulgar, what he has accomplished is a reformacion (that is a “reformation”) of swordsmanship, thus creating a nueva sciencia, or “new science.”

Carranza’s work takes the form of four Socratic dialogues, the contents of which he summarizes thusly:

The first dialogue treats of the invention of the art and itsuniversal propositions, where all doubts against destreza are solved and you will see the effects of itsdefinitions.

The second dialogue treats of the false destreza, universally and particularly, where it is discovered the deceits of the commonfencers, and other things that are pleasing to this purpose.

The third dialogue deals with the demonstrations of the techniques that in general were proposed in the first dialogue and shows the universal principles of the dagger against the sword and the judgment of all weapons.

The fourth dialogue treats of natural defense, and how the diestro puts into practice what he has learned, without committing aggression nor committing treachery nor surely dying, and the obligations he has to return to himself, his friends, and his enemies by divine positive and natural right.[4]

While, in reality, diatribes against the errors of the vulgos—the “vulgar fencers”—take up a large part of the text, the remainder Carranza’s treatise, when read and understood in the proper light, is perfectly logical. The Scholasticism that Carranza adhered to did not value superficial knowledge or a command of trivia and tricks; rather, principles, like the laws of logic, were to be abstracted and universalized from experience. No knowledge could be true unless it could be abstracted from coarse material reality. By becoming familiar with these universal principles, one could then apply one’s knowledge to specific individual situations. As Carranza himself states, “The solution to doubt is the invincibility of truth.”

Carranza thus, using Aristotelian and Euclidian analyses of motion, dissects swordsmanship into its component actions, breaking each action one performs in swordsmanship down into its component motions, or movimientos: The types of passos, or steps one can take (straight, lateral, compass, etc.), the types of motions one can make with the sword (cuts from the wrist, elbow, and shoulders, parries or desvios), holding the hand with the fingernails up, down, inside, or outside (uñas abajo, arriba, a dentro, a fuera). The actions one performs when in the interplay of combat are often described in terms taken from Aristotle’s Physics: Raising the arm is violento, for instance, lowering it is natural.

The fact that the sorts of steps Carranza describes were later used by dance masters (for instance in Juan de Esquivel’s 1642 Sobre El Arte del Dancado) has given many the false impression that Carranza is describing some sort of choreography; though the aesthetics of motion are similar—human beings seem to find beautiful the sort of balanced, centered, graceful motion that is most efficient for fighting—destreza has nothing in common with dance choreography. The actual techniques, or tretas, are improvised out of the movimientos in real time in response to the situation one finds oneself in. This analysis also provides a method for training the disciple to perform optimally in a real situation. However, Carranza, beyond defining his terms, does not give elaborate instructions. Rather, the student would be trained in person. Once this understanding and theory of motion was internalized (or so Carranza believed), one’s own ingenuity would then apply it in the proper way according to the situation they found themselves in. As he says in his first dialogue, “…know that everyone’s best master is their own ingenuity, judgment, good diligence and ability…” (“…Sabed que el major Maestro de todos es el ingenio el juyzio la buena diligencia y habilidad de cada uno…”)[5]

To briefly describe la destreza in action, picture two swordsmen standing erect opposite each other, their bodies semi-profiled, sword-arms extended, blades parallel to one another. The length of the blades, Carranza stated, forms the diameter of an imaginary circle.[6] Thus each swordsman walks along the circumference of the circle, keeping his point aimed at his adversary. To attack along the diameter of the circle would be sure death, as the swordsmen would wind up impaling one another. The posture is thus not only offensive, but also defensive: Because both adversaries’ swords are always pointed at the each other in this manner, neither can make a direct attack. However, by using proper footwork to execute an angular attack off the diameter of the circle—while observing the various other requisites of the art, such as distance, timing, proportion and blade leverage—the diestro creates an opening in his adversary’s defense. This strategic positioning, this combative “generalship” (to use a boxing term) is the foundation of Carranza’s invention. “Invention,” indeed, is the proper word, for destreza is structured and explained unlike any other European system of swordsmanship, past or present. This structure derives entirely from the unique intellectual currents that flowed through Carranza’s Spain.

Rather than illustrations that are, at best, static representations of movements frozen in time, Carranza makes his demonstration by geometric diagrams which represent, in an abstract manner, the placement and movement of the combatants. As in navigation, in which knowledge of geometry is paramount, the relative position and movement of the swordsmen can be demonstrated precisely. Carranza’s task in defining la destreza is to show, by geometrical demonstrations, that his method is an exact science; if this can be proven, then the theory, art, and science of his swordsmanship can be shown beyond doubt to be infallible and perfect. As he himself states:

You know that mathematics strips bare the forms and figures and numbers of the material, in which no falsehood is admitted, because it does not dissimulate, either affirming or denying, because it considers things simply and not all together. And it has this privilege more than the other arts in that it declares its intentions with most true demonstrations, for which reason the ancients guided those things they called true and certain arts with this reasoning, and that any truth one has in human affairs lies in mathematics because its teaching is very pointed (that is to say simple); it guides the sciences, whether moral or natural, by the most direct route. . . as is seen in the beginning of the Sextant of Euclid, from whence is born the foundation by which the astronomers verify their calculations which are found most copiously in the Algamest, and whose esteem and importance will be seen the inscription that was in the School of Plato, which said that no one who was ignorant of mathematics could enter inside. This is the reason it seems to me a more certain thing to order la destreza under mathematics rather than any of the other sciences.[7]

In truth, though, theory does not precede practice. In destreza, as for all practical arts, knowledge of what to do precedes theory. Though Carranza states that he developed this method “without a teacher,” he was no autodidact. In truth, he was an experienced swordsman, explaining his art in a scholastic manner, not a philosopher pretending to be a swordsman. As a military man and member of the nobility, he would have been trained in arms since birth. Rather, this is a new method for fencing, based, as he says, on “art, knowledge, science, and experience” is guided by his genio, or “genius.” From his experience and observation of the common methods of swordsmanship of his time and by applying his education in science and philosophy Carranza distilled universal techniques, such as the atajo, or contact with the opposing blade, which he incorporated into la destreza. Demonstrating his knowledge of physics and the concept of leverage, Carranza, as other masters do, divides the sword into degrees from the cross of the hilt to the point of the weapon progressing from the greater numerical value to the lesser. He then goes on to explain that the higher degree must always oppose the lesser degree of the adversary’s sword. Underneath the immense verbiage, the principles Carranza describes are eminently practical and common to all fencing.

So, how was Carranza’s “new science” received? Cervantes, in Chapter 19 of the second part of Don Quixote (1614) presents a skilled swordsman skilled in Carranza’s method humiliating a strong, enraged—but unskilled—adversary. Conversely, Don Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas, in his 1627 Historia de la Vida del Buscón, lambasts what he believes are the absurdities of la destreza, presenting us with the picture of a scholar who is so obsessed with geometry that he can not mount his mule without measuring the acute and obtuse angles and is run off by the first cutthroat who challenges him. (There was a certain amount of bad blood between Quevedo and Carranza’s student Don Luis Pacheco de Narvaez. Quevedo knocked Narvaez’ hat off his head in an encounter that took place in 1608 in the house of the President of Castille. Quevedo had impugned Narvaez’ work in his presence, and so the argument was taken outside and put to the test. The two fought a single pass, resulting in the aforesaid removal of headgear, before their host stopped the matter. They thereafter limited themselves to verbal and legal passes.)

Modern authors have been even more critical. The nineteenth-century fencing historian Egerton Castle, for instance, summarized Carranza’s work as “the first of the long series of ponderous Spanish treatises on the ‘raison demonstrative,’ in which the ruling principle, after the Aristotelian method, is the ‘conocimieto de la cosa por su causa,’ [knowledge of the thing by its cause] and the purpose, to demonstrate that a perfect theoretical knowledge must infallibly lead to victory, notwithstanding grievous physical disadvantage.”[8] In such criticisms, Carranza is falsely accused of making three assumptions: The assumption that the analysis of motion preceded, rather than followed, the activity; the assumption that knowledge of the scientific principles underlying any action are necessary to its proper performance, whereas in reality victory falls more often to the swift, strong, and cunning, and not to the slow, weak, and guileless, however educated in theory they might be; and the assumption that fencing masters of the past regarded fencing as a sort of dance, completely misunderstanding the movements they attempted to describe.

To be sure, Carranza’s treatiseis difficult to read. The author often writes around his subject in circles before coming to the point. He uses verbose and highly ornamented language, with purposely-archaic vocabulary and sentence structure, to limit his audience to only the most educated readers (especially those already well-versed in swordsmanship, since the actions described make little sense unless one is already familiar with the principles of the art). Moreover, while it is undoubtedly true that in some of the works of Carranza’s successors la destreza reached great heights of unnecessary complexity—a tendency taken to its ultimate conclusion by later writers such as Francisco Lorenz de Rada (1705). Indeed, Narvaez’ onetime student Girard Thibault’s luxuriously engraved Academie de la Espee (1628), dedicated to Louis XIII, ranks as the most elaborate fencing treatise ever produced. On the other hand, Cristobal de Cala, in his Desengaño de la Espada y Norte de Diestros (Cadiz, 1648), stated that destreza had became overly complicated and sought to return to Carranza’s original methods.[9]

Despite this, far from being a ponderous baroque floating castle sailing on nothing but hot air, there is a core of very real practicality behind la destreza—albeit one oftentimes obscured by what seems (to the modern reader) an immense amount of verbiage. It is preposterous to say that fencing masters of the past, in an age when men’s lives depended on their skill with a sword, did not know their business. In fact, what they wrote were treatisesseeking to explain their practice in rational and understandable ways to experienced swordsmen and other masters. It is not at all the case that practice followed theory; rather, it was theory that followed practice. As he says in the first dialogue of the true art and skill (Dialogo Primero de la Verdadera Destreza) of de la Filosophia de Armas, “knowledge is acquired from use” (El conoscimiento que se adquiere con el uso) and “From use, knowledge is born” (Del uso nase el conosimiento).[10]

Such treatises, therefore, are elucidations on the art and science of fencing: By analyzing and understanding the dynamic action of the body in motion and then conditioning the student to perform the optimal action at any given time—which was the basis of fencing pedagogy then as it is now—one magnifies natural ability of the student manifold. Logically if this were not so, then it begs the question: If all that is required of the swordsman is to be swift, strong, and cunning, then why study and train in swordsmanship at all? The purpose of these texts was for the reader to perfect his comprehension of fencing technique and theory; this book-knowledge, however, was combined with actual lessons with a master-at-arms. Narvaez describes in his Modo Facil y Nuevo para Examinarse los Maestros en la Destreza de las Armas a method of teaching in which theoretical lessons are combined with practical lessons with a maestro batallador.[11] La destreza is thus a perfect example of the emerging scientific mindset: in his pedagogical method, the theoretical, geometrical side of the art was combined with direct, practical experience with a weapon in hand. When one is learning a system of swordsmanship—or any other martial art—it must be done in a logical progression and practiced by the numbers, as it were. With this type of training, the mind and body become focused and attuned, so as to be able to apply the method to whatever circumstances that might occur. Since every circumstance that might arise cannot be foreseen, being able to size up the situation and proceed in a cool and logical manner increases one’s chances of victory and survival many times over. Finally, there has never existed a school of swordsmanship, or martial art in general, that was not artificial in some sense. No one assumes a fencing stance (or a boxer’s guard) naturally. All actions must be taught, as they have been designed and invented for a specific purpose. Moreover, no one fights naturally; our ideas of how to fight are shaped by our culture.

The geometry used by Carranza and subsequent theorists of la destreza, while a useful conceptual tool, were thus not meant to be taken as literally as in Quevedo’s burlesque. Carranza could not have expected his disciples to learn swordsmanship from a book: His treatise was not widely published until decades after it was written, when destreza was already well established. This can only mean that practical knowledge of actually handling the sword was imparted by hands-on instruction by a teacher.

Perhaps the greatest proof of the efficacy of destreza, besides the esteem it was held in by contemporaries, is the longevity of this school of fence. Domenico Angelo in his book The School of Fencing, which was published several times during the 18th century, shows techniques vs. diestro. The last known treatise on destreza, Principios Universales y Regalas Generales De La Verdadera Destreza: Destreza Del Espadin (“Universal Principles and Generals Rules of the True Art and Skill: The True Art and Skill of the Smallsword”), was written by Don Manuel Antonio De Brea in 1805. Although the text describes a mixed system of Spanish, Italian and French doctrine, Brea’s system is solidly based on the foundations set by Carranza over two hundred years earlier, resulting in a treatise that is predominantly Spanish theory. Also of interest is the Manual de esgrima en que se trata de la esgrima de la espada, espada y daga, del sable, y del florete, (“Manual of Fencing that Treats on the Fencing of Sword, Sword and Dagger, Saber and Foil”) by Don Antonio Heraud y Clavijo De Soria, first published in 1864 in Paris and reprinted in Paris and Mexico in an expanded form in 1877, 1892, and 1905. Although this work is also of a mixed system—showing the Bourbon influence in Spain—the foundations of destreza are clearly strongly based on Carranza’s theories. Of even greater importance is that this work shows that la destreza, and systems derived from it, continued to be taught and practiced, surviving through the 19th and into the 20th centuries. La verdadera destreza is a fascinating and long-lived cultural artifact, reflecting not only the mindset and concerns of early modern Spain, but also the intellectual currents of the time—besides being a work of interest to historians of fencing.

name="_ftn1" title="">[1] Nueva Ciencia y Filosofia de la Destreza,
p. ¶ ¶ 3 (verso)

[2] On p. 267, Carranza defines the duel: “…que en España se dize Desafio, ò Campo cerrado, aquiè llamà Duelo in Italia, que es Batalla Singular entre dos hombres, por la quale uno pretende probar y substenrar al otro per Armas en espacio y termino de un dia, como es hombre de honora y verdadero, y no mercedor de ser injuriado, ni menospreciado, y el otro pretende probar lo contrario…” (Which in Spain is called desafio, or the closed field, also called the duel in Italy, which is single combat between two men, by which one seeks to prove and substantiate to the other by arms in the space and bounds of one day that he is a man of honor and truth, and not worthy to be injured, nor denigrated, and the other seeks to prove the contrary.”)

[3] Norman also states that “The phrase espada ropera is presumably the origin of the French epee rapiere which first appeared in 1474.” Norman further says; “There is, in fact some evidence in paintings that the wearing of the sword in civilian dress was more common in the late Middle ages in the Iberian Peninsular than elsewhere in Europe.”

[4] Carranza, Filosofia, p. 9

[5] ibid, p. 24.

[6] As an aside regarding the belief that has been perpetuated to this very day about the excessive length of the Spanish rapier: Whereas some authors of the past have asserted that the Spanish sword was sometimes over five feet in length, King Phillip II issued a law in 1564 that ordered that the sword’s length was to be determined by placing the pommel of the weapon in line with the left shoulder and extending the blade across the chest to the end of the middle finger of the laterally extended right arm. This length should not exceed five fourths of a vara. A vara is a unit of measurement that was used in Castile of the time, which is approximately thirty-three inches. Thus if a rapier is five-fourths of a vara, the total length of the sword would be approximately 41.25 inches.

[7] Carranza, Filosofia, p. 152

[8] Castle, Schools and Masters, p. 96.

[9] P. 7: “.”

[10] de la Filosophia de Armas pp. 25, 26.

[11] Narvaez, Modo Facil y Nuevo para Examinarse los Maestros en la Destreza de las Armas pp. 115–116.