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The Night Thrust; or, More Politely, the Passata Soto

“This subterfuge is termed a Night-Thrust; being a short method of deciding a skirmish in the dark.”

–Andrew Lonergan, The Fencer’s Guide, 1777.

 

But Edward was no longer there, or at least not where Lynch expected. Completely covered by the inky darkness, Edward had lunged backward, his left hand dropping to the ground, his body bending inward, his blade shooting forward at Lynch’s belly: the Italians called this passata soto, but some of Edward’s English contemporaries called it the “night thrust” for its utility in the darkness.

Benerson Little, Fortune’s Whelp, 2015

 

Sottobotta Marcelli A

A classical passato soto from Regole Della Scherma by Francesco Antonio Marcelli, 1686.

 

The Classic Passata Soto or “Night Thrust”

A staple of many Western fencing texts since the Renaissance, the passata soto, or passata sotto, also known variously as the sbasso, sottobotta, cartoccio on occasion, the various dessous of the French masters of the smallsword and the passata di sotto of the modern, the passata soto is usually defined as a counter-attack made by lowering the body while simultaneously thrusting, extending the rear foot in a reverse lunge, and placing the unarmed hand on the ground for support. Occasionally the technique is recommended at an attack, with a true lunge, rather than a reverse, made. Andrew Lonergan provides an eighteenth century definition and exercise of the passata soto under the name of night thrust:

“On Guard in Quarte; and disengage a Quarte-over-the-arm [modern sixte]. I now batter [beat] with a Tierce; and begin to advance my left foot to form my Pass upon you in Tierce. Now when you see my left foot move, slip your left foot back, so as to pitch yourself on that knee; stoop your head so that your arm now turned into a Segonde may cover it, hold your left hand extended toward the ground, that it may sustain you, in case you should totter; thus my point will pass over your head, and I shall fall upon yours.”

And his reasoning why such “athletic” techniques should not be abandoned:

“Though these methods of Disarming, and Passing, Volting, and that of the Night Thrust, seem to be almost abolished by the refiners of these arts; I cannot conceive why a man, who is naturally strong and active, should not avail himself of such advantages, especially when improved by our athletic exercises, so engaging to an English subject, and forbidding to all others.”

In the old Italian schools, the body was usually bent at the waist. In some of the old French, the body was lowered by a very low reverse lunge. The adversary may be hit either with the extending arm or by impaling upon it, or both.

 

Cartoccio

A nineteenth century “cartoccio” or passata soto by any other name. From Manuale Teorico-Pratico per la Scherma di Spada e Sciabola by Giordano Rossi (1885). Note that different masters often use the same or different terms to mean different things. For example, Cesare Enrichetti in his Trattato Elementare Teorico-Pratico di Scherma (1871) calls this a sbasso; his cartoccio is a counter-attack made with lunge in tierce with a smaller lowering of the body.

 

In terms of the modern French school, the “passata di sotto” is classified as an esquive, specifically une passe dessous with the back leg extended or both legs deeply bent.

With real weapons, the adversary is ideally impaled, usually in the belly which is, were the swords real, a good place to hit because are no ribs and cartilage to potentially prevent the point from entering or otherwise diminish its penetration. There is also some anecdotal evidence to suggest that in some cases belly wounds may be more quickly incapacitating.

 

Long Low Lunge by La Touche or La Tousche

An arrest is made in opposition with the hand held quite high in prime and the body lowered. From Les Vrays Principes de l’Espée Seule by the sieur de la Touche, 1670.

 

Prime dessous

An arrest, with the body lowered, made in prime beneath the adversary’s blade, left-hander against right-hander. From Les Vrays Principes de l’Espée Seule by the sieur de la Touche, 1670.

 

A very long low lunge which made going forward might slip under the adversary’s guard, as in Rafael Sabatini’s novel The Black Swan (1932), and which made in reverse might serve aid a counter-attack by lowering of the body. Long low lunges like this are often identified with, or confused with, the passata soto.

 

Bouchet 1670

An attack, amounting to a passata soto, performed as a long low lunge. There are at least two likely possibilities for the scene. The swordsman on the left may have parried late or his parry has been forced against a low attack in tierce: his medium is engaged with his adversary’s forte. Or, the swordsman on the right has thrust in tierce opposition against a low guard. In any case, the long low lunge is designed to slip under the adversary’s guard or to reach an adversary otherwise out of range. This lunge is similar to that described by Rafael Sabatini in The Black Swan, although he credits it to the Italian school, even though it was a staple of may 17th century French smallsword schools. Louis François du Bouchet, circa 1670. Rijksmuseum. A copy is also in the British Museum.

 

The passata soto is not without significant drawbacks, which is probably why Lonergan recommended its use at night and nowhere else. Foremost, it must be well-timed. Too late, and the fencer attempting it may get hit in the face, neck, or upper torso. Too soon, and the fencer attempting it throws away the advantage of the surprise mandatory to its success. Used too often, and the adversary may learn how to trigger it with a feint, and then take advantage of the poor position the classical passata soto leaves the fencer in.

And it is this poor position that is the major drawback of the passata soto, in particular with real weapons. With the unarmed hand on the ground, the torso bent sideways, and the rear leg extended well behind, the fencer is in a bad position for defense after a failed attack or, even if the swords were real, after impaling the adversary. Few wounds are immediately incapacitating, including ultimately fatal wounds: many duelists and battlefield swordsmen were wounded or killed after giving an adversary a fatal wound. Even with a mortal wound to the heart, an adversary may live as long as ten seconds. Even assuming an average of four, that’s plenty of time to even things up.

In the case of dry (non-electric) weapons, the judges and director (referee) will determine whether a hit was made, whether it was in time, and whether a hit on the fencer who ducked is valid via rules regarding replacing of target. In the case of electrical weapons, the machine will make the determination in epee, and the machine and director in foil and saber.

For the fencer armed with a rapier on poniard, placing the poniard-armed hand on the ground is giving up half of one’s offense and defense, to be replaced by almost blind trust.

From the position of the passata soto, a prime or lifted sixte/septime beat or bind, or a St. George parry or opposition (modern saber quinte) accompanied by the use of the unarmed hand to help ward off the adversary’s blade, plus an urgent recovery forward or backward, all performed near-simultaneously, is the only viable option if the passata soto has failed to hit or otherwise halt the adversary.

Such recovery, however, is invariably slow, and a loss of balance may ensue if the unarmed hand is removed from the ground too soon to assist in parrying or opposing, for example. Further, the long low position leaves the fencer vulnerable if the arrest fails, whether by missing the adversary or failing to immediately incapacitate him. In particular, the head, neck, and subclavian area are exposed. Fatal thrusting wounds can be given in any of the three areas. It’s likely that execution at night might alleviate some of these weaknesses in the technique, but it would need to be a dark night with little ambient light.

 

Historical Techniques Similar to Passata Soto

There are better methods, past and present. In particular, these methods, while not reducing the target quite as much, leave the fencer in a much better position should the counter-attack fail, or, with real weapons, should the adversary be hit but not be immediately incapacitated. Some masters, Sir William Hope for example, believed also that a lowered position better-protected the torso.

In general they consist of a lowering of the body to a lesser degree, often with a parry or beat first, or with a thrust in opposition. Below are a series of images depicting this in various forms over time.

 

Besnard1

Against a thrust to the head, parry the blade upward and riposte in seconde while lowering the body and head toward the knee. From Le Maistre d’Arme Liberal by Charles Besnard, 1653.

 

Alfieri

 

Alfieri 2

 

Alfieri

Three images from L’Arte di Ben Maneggiare la Spada by Francesco Ferdinando Alfieri (1653) showing various techniques accompanied by a lowering of the body but without a passata soto. Note that the hand is ready to assist!

 

Stoccata Marcelli

Not truly a lowering of the body during a counter-attack, this image shows what in modern terms is a remise against the riposte, with the body lowered from a lunge, making it “relatively” safe. From Regole Della Scherma by Francesco Antonio Marcelli, 1686.

 

Tierce cut off in time by a seconde Laroon

“A Teirce [Tierce] cutt off (in time) by a Second.” In other words, a counter-attack in seconde against an attack in tierce, with the body lowered for protection. Note that the unarmed hand is present in front of the face for protection. From this position it can be used to parry or oppose as necessary. From The Art of Fencing Represented in Proper Figures Exhibiting the Several Passes, Encloses, Disarms, &c. by Marcellus Laroon, various editions dated from the 1680s to circa 1700.

 

Dessous

From Le Maître d’Armes ou L’Exercice de l’Epée Seule dans sa Perfection by Andre Wernesson, Sieur de Liancour, 1692. Notably the unarmed hand is not used to parry or oppose.

 

Bondi 1696

Counter-attack with lowering of the body. From La Spada Maestra by Bondi di Mazo, 1694. The unarmed hand is not used to oppose, a practice many would not recommend.

 

Labat

From L’Art des Armes by le sieur Labat, 1696. Note that the unarmed hand is, again, unwisely extended backward, probably for balance, rather than kept ready to parry or oppose.

 

Doyle

Again, a counter-attack made while lowering the body. The impaled hat may be a humorous way of showing the risks of this technique. From Neu Alamodische Ritterliche Fecht- und Schirm-Kunst by Alexander Doyle, 1715.

 

McBane

Donald McBane’s version of a passata soto, although he did not use the name. The body is not bent, and rear leg is dropped to the knee. From Expert Sword-Man’s Companion, 1728.

 

L'Exercise des Armes - Jean Baptiste Le Perche de Coud1

A pass made in seconde with lowering the body. From a circa 1740 edition of L’exercice des Armes, ou le Maniement du Fleuret by Jean Baptiste Le Perche de Coudray. The original work was published in 1670.

 

La Marche 2

Stop thrust via dérobement, with a “reverse lunge” and associated lowering of the body. The technique, of using a backward lunge while making a stop thrust on the preparation, has been around for centuries. In the modern version, the rear foot is extended simultaneously with the extension. The front follows immediately after, almost as if pushing off from the hit. The body often leans forward a bit, and the body, in the modern version, is not lowered. From L’Épée by Claude La Marche [Georges-Marie Felizet], 1884, reprinted 1888 or 1889.

 

The Passata Soto in Film

The passata soto is seldom shown in film, unfortunately, but here are two of the very few associated examples:

 

Fairbanks Passata Soto Detail

Detail from a lobby card for The Three Musketeers starring Douglas Fairbanks. In this same scene in the film the technique is not used: either it was cut, or the shot was posed separately solely for publicity stills. The film created the modern swashbuckler film genre, with athletic feats of derring-do made de riguer. As the New York Times more or less put it at the time, why fight one swordsman when you can fight six at the same time? United Artists, 1921. Choreography by Henry J. Uyttenhove, graduate of the Belgian Military Institute of Physical Education and fencing master at the Los Angeles Athletic Club.

 

Binnie Barnes Passata Soto

Binnie Barnes in The Spanish Main (1945) executing a passato soto, her sword buried almost to the hilt, quite unnecessarily, not to mention that it might, in the real world, be slow or otherwise difficult to withdraw. Detail from an RKO publicity still. Choreography by Fred Cavens, choreographer of most major Hollywood swashbucklers from the 20s to the 50s.

 

The Passato Soto in Modern Fencing

In modern competitive fencing, the technique is still occasionally seen in its classical form, in particular against a flèche, but more often is modified.

In the sprint of 1978 I saw it well-used by a University of Southern California epeeist–I made up the weakest third of the USC epee team, having fenced for less than a year–at a large collegiate meet at the University of California San Diego. The score was la belle (4-4), with no time limit for the final touch as I recall.

Suddenly both fencers stopped and pulled off their masks, but for no reason other than that they had heard the bell on the adjacent strip and, their adrenalin up for the la belle touch, mistook it for theirs. The young director… Hold on for a moment. Today the director, from directeur de combat, the person who “directs” a duel, is called a “referee,” solely because the foolish powers that be thought it would make fencing more spectator friendly… Seriously.

But back to our anecdote. The young college-age director, rather than enforcing the halt and putting the fencers back on guard, said “I didn’t call halt!”

You know what surely happened next. Without putting masks back on, immediately the opposing team’s fencer flèched, ours dropped into a beautiful passata soto. We got the touch and the bout. Neither fencer, thankfully, was hit in the unprotected face. Or at least that’s how I recall it happened…

 

Clery 1

A mostly classical passata soto from the twentieth century French school. From Escrime by Raoul Cléry, 1965, an excellent book by one of the great French masters.

 

Beck 2

At top, a counter-attack made by extending the arm and bending at the waist, a modern variation. At the bottom, a classical passato soto made against a flèche. Both techniques are effective. From The Complete Guide to Fencing, edited by Berndt Barth and Emil Beck.

 

Mangiarotti 1

An exercise for leg strength and elasticity, also suitable for developing a modern passata soto, which is nothing more than a squat. It’s a good exercise to drop into the squat while making a counter-attack, then lunging or flèching from the position. Ten of each works well as part of a fencing plyometrics workout. From La Vera Scherma by Edoardo Mangiarotti and Aldo Cerchiari.

 

In modern usage, although infrequently seen, is a form known as the “turning” passata soto. The description is best left to R. A. Lidstone:

 

Lidstone

From Fencing: A Practical Treatise on Foil, Épée, Sabre by R. A. Lidstone, 1952.

 

In competitive use, the modern form most often takes the form of ducking or squatting, shown below. Ducking has been used for at least seventy-five years in modern fencing.

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Modern ducking or modified passata soto performed by Geza Imre of Hungary unsuccessfully against Sangyoung Park of South Korea during the final of the men’s epee event at the 2016 Olympic Games. The bout was a classic one, pitting an older well-rounded epeeist with excellent control of distance–“a complete fencer”–over a much younger epeeist armed mostly with lightning speed and near-perfect tempo used at close distance. Imre gave up a 14-10 lead to lose the bout, as much due to tactical errors, it is argued, as to his adversary’s excellent seizing of distance and tempo.

 

Copyright Benerson Little 2017. Last updated July 24, 2017.

 

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