In another moment of reflection lately, we began to wonder just where the decidedly modern, misapplied term of “free-play” in reference to sparring originated. So far as we can tell, it more than likely originated at the same source as the fabricated meaning behind “federschwerter.” Perhaps telling is that A. Hutton mentioned “loose play” in passing back in the 19th century; seemingly the perpetrator’s prime area of reference. So what is our problem with this? Well for one, it wasn’t used or found necessary by the experts of old, but suddenly invented by those trying to study their art, which should always set one to thinking. In a way, saying “free-play” is like saying “chain-mail.” It is a 50% modern addition of pointless redundancy and it betrays a certain naiveté about the subject being discussed.
So what did they call it in their own time? The European masters seem to have unanimously and simply called it play, often in a seemingly loose or non-specific sense, with the particulars of that sense varying slightly between traditions and times. The sources of the English, Germanic, Italian and French traditions all refer to sparring, or non-lethal, spontaneous, partnered mock-combat as play; the meaning of play being the serious but unscripted and antagonistic physical study of a subject (hence the still-used term of sword-play, not sword free-play). Play could well mean “interaction” in the old sense as well. In addition to this, there is nothing wrong with calling play “sparring,” a solidly founded, relatively modern term; the origin of which comes from the Middle English sparren, meaning to spring or to dart. Though first applied to boxing under the Queensbury rules (and some would argue that it exclusively applies to such) it obviously refers to the general definition given above, and is a well founded term for such. Another alternative that came to be used late in the Renaissance is “assault.” A sparring match or bout of sword play could be called an assault. Doubtless there were other terms used as well, particularly in other languages (I believe the first known use of “assault” in reference to play was via Master Marozzo, of Italy).
So, if you want to sound like you know what you’re doing, lose the “free” and stick to play.
copyright Aug. 2009, Casper Bradak