Why Does The Cateran Society Parry On The Edge?

(An Excerpt From The Book "Lannaireachd:Gaelic Swordsmanship" by Christopher Scott Thompson, not yet published)

Today, the use of the flat parry is widely accepted by Western Martial Arts practitioners. Those who use the edge parry are sometimes mocked as ill-informed stage combat, role-playing or sports fencing enthusiasts. So why does the Cateran Society parry with the edge of the blade? The answer has several parts, which should be considered separately. They range from solid historical evidence to educated speculation. I'll address each of these parts separately, from the most certain to the most speculative. I welcome comment or criticism, especially from knowledgeable swordsmen or organizations such as HACA, which has done so much to revive historical martial arts.

1- The Edge Parry In Regimental Highland Broadsword Play-
Although the Cateran Society studies a number of historic Highland weapons, our practice is built around the system used by Highland Regiments in the British Army in the late 18th and 19th centuries. This is simply because we have much more information about this system than earlier systems. These factors lead us to believe that the edge parry is appropriate for that system-
- Mathewson says- "The fore-mentioned lessons and guards I would recommend to be practiced with flat wooden blades, in the form of the sword you mean to carry, as it will assist the scholar in holding his sword, and in receiving and giving blows with the edge." In other words, the edge is to be used for both blows and parries, according to this experienced swordsman and soldier. The English broadsword instructor J.M. Waite, in his manual "Lessons in Sabre and Singlestick", specifically instructs the student to parry with the edge. So, for better or for worse, the edge-parry was practiced with broadswords during that period.
- The guards used in this system seem to be designed for direct edge-to-edge blocking, not deflecting with the flat of the blade. For example, if the use of a flat, deflecting parry is assumed, then the sword could be held in front of the body, pointed straight out, and blows could be deflected by slapping them away to the right or left, or by turning the blade down to the right or left to control the incoming blade. In the Highland broadsword manuals of Angelo and Mathewson, this is not the case. The sword is often held in the inside and outside guards (corresponding roughly to modern saber's quarte and tierce). In the inside guard, the edge is angled to the left to block cuts on the inside. In the outside guard, the edge is angled to the right, to block cuts on the outside. It seems clear that a direct, edge-to-edge parry is intended here. The same is true of the other guards in this system

2- The Edge Parry In Earlier Highland Systems Of Swordsmanship
No Gaelic swordsman ever wrote a manual of swordsmanship in his own language (or at least none have survived). We are forced to rely on English-language works, written by men who took up the Highland broadsword- Englishmen such as Angelo and Mathewson, and Scotsmen such as McBane and Hope. McBane, however, was a Highlander by birth, and he actually faced Highland clan warriors in battle and hand-to-hand combat on more than one occasion. Even though he clearly modified the Highland footwork in his manual, we can assume he was personally familiar with their system. McBane wrote of the bask et-hilted backsword, which is different from the broadsword only in being flat on one edge. (In fact, among surviving Highland basket-hilts from before 1746, the backsword is as common as the broadsword.) Now, if the edge parry were truly restricted to the 19th century, we would not expect to see evidence of it in McBane's manual of 1728. But in fact, McBane's backsword system uses the same guards- inside, outside, and St. George's- which imply the use of the edge parry in Angelo and Mathewson's later systems. McBane wrote his manual at the end of a long life as a swordsman. He faced the basket-hilted Highland weapons in single combat for the first time in the late 1600s, many years before he wrote his manual. If these guards, and thus the edge parry, were a recent innovation when he wrote his manual, why would he not have mentioned such a drastic change in technique? Here we are entering the realm of speculation, but I think it's reasonable to assume that these guards, and the edge parry, were in use in the late 1600s, if not earlier. The same guards are found in English backsword and broadsw ord systems from at least the 1700s onwards, and thus I think it likely that the edge parry was used with cutting weapons throughout the British Isles from at least 1700.

This is directly relevant to the use of basket-hilts on weapons. Before 1500, Highland swords have no basket-hilt, and thus they have very little protection for the swordsman's hand. After about 1500, the basket-hilt is standard for Highland swords. Why the change?I agree with those who believe that direct parrying was usually avoided in medieval styles of swordsmanship. The medieval sword was an offensive weapon, and the swordsman avoided blows by moving his body out of the way whenever possible, or by using a shield. The hand is in much less danger with such methods. But if the sword is used to directly block an opponent's sword, the hand will be at great risk of being hit unless it is protected. I can't say which came first- the extra hand-protection or the direct parry- but the two of them go together. The direct parry makes hand-protection essential, while hand-protection makes the direct parry far more feasible. Of course, the use of the targe before 1746 would still have made direct parries less common, because the targe would usually bear the brunt of the defense. Before the advent of the basket-hilt in 1500, then, I assume that direct edge-to-edge parrying would have been far less common, if it was done at all, and lannaireachd before 1500 was therefore quite different than in later years. But even before 1500, when a parry simply had to be made, did Highland swordsmen use the flat or the edge? This is an important question for our study of older Highland weapons without basket-hilts, such as the Highland two-handed sword.

I don't think we can answer that question with absolute certainty, but I'm inclined to think the edge would still have been used. Why? Because it seems to me that the arguments against the edge parry are based on flawed reasoning. This brings us to our next point-

3- The Effects Of The Edge Parry On Cutting Swords I cannot deny that edge-to-edge parrying will damage a sharp sword, and sometimes ruin it. This is an important point, and one which should not be lightly dismissed. But those who rely on this argument are neglecting to distinguish between the different sections of a sword blade, which in Mathews on's work are called the "fort" and the "feeble." The fort is the section nearest to the hilt, and it is used for parrying. The feeble is the section nearest to the point, and it is used for striking or cutting. Often-especially with larger weapons like two-handers- the fort was left completely unsharpened, and only the feeble was sharp. This is sensible, as only the feeble was needed in order to cut. Therefore, nicking along the fort would not damage the cutting effectiveness of your sword, as the fort is not used for cutting in the first place. Parry correctly, and the cutting edge will not be damaged. Of course, the opponent's cutting edge could be nicked when you parry it- but why would you want to avoid that? It is sometimes asserted that historical blades in museums and collections show no evidence of damage from edge-to-edge contact. Sometimes, this is true. But museums and collections are naturally going to display those weapons which are in the best condition, sometimes because they never happened to be used in battle. Old swords which have nicks and gouges in them are not the weapons that tend to be displayed in museums. It is also asserted that other cultures around the world avoid edge-to-edge parrying. This is sometimes true, but not always. If you examine styles of swordsmanship from around the world, you will find some which parry on the ridge, some which deflect on the flat, and some which parry directly on the edge on the section of the blade which is not used for cutting.

I have tried to argue conservatively from known facts to likely conclusions. I know that there are many knowledgeable swordsmen who may disagree with these conclusions, but on the other hand no less an authority than the Tower of London Armories has come out in favor of the edge parry. Here is a recap of my conclusions, in descending order of certainty-

- The edge parry was used in the Regimental Highland broadsword system (I consider this point proven.)
- The edge parry was used with the Highland broadsword and backsword by 1728. (I consider this point extremely likely.)
- The edge parry was used at least some of the time for cut-and-thrust weapons throughout the British Isles by 1700 if not earlier. (I consider this point very likely.)
- The edge parry was in use with Highland basket-hilted weapons from the point when they were first used in the 1500s onwards, although the use of the targe made parrying less common than in later years.
- Parrying was far less common with Highland swords before 1500, but when a parry was made, the edge was used. (I consider this speculative.)

I hope I have shown clearly why we parry with the edge in our practice of Regimental Highland broadsword, and why our use of the edge parry with earlier systems is based on a solid line of reasoning.

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