Daga (Dagger)

Alphabet - Iam the noble weapon called the dagger, who much desires close play. He who understands my malicious deceptions and my art possesses a good part of every subtle exercise at arms …Whoever sees me in the deed of arms, will see me make covers and thrusts with abrazare, taking the dagger from the opponent with turns and binds. And weapons or armour are worthless against me.

Fiore dei Liberi, il Fior di Battaglia

THE WEAPON
In the early Middle Ages, the dagger (called a daga by the Italians) was often carried as a back-up weapon by spearmen and archers as a substitute for the sword; it was only in the second half of the 13th century that the dagger begins to be depicted as a sidearm worn with the sword, in form it usually looked like a sword in miniature. By the following century, wearing sword and dagger had become commonplace, and by the late 14th and 15th centuries, men-at-arms are almost universally depicted with a new sort of dagger – the rondel.

A dagger of Vadi's recommended proportions by Arma Bohemia based on an example from the Bayerisches Armeemuseum Ingolstadt. German, first half of the 15th century.
A dagger of Vadi’s recommended proportions by Arma Bohemia based on an example from the Bayerisches Armeemuseum Ingolstadt. German, first half of the 15th century.

The rondel dagger derives its name, subtly enough, from the “rondels” or discs that serve as both a guard and pommel (early examples, sometimes had spherical pommels, but this was uncommon by the mid-15th century). The two discs serve to “lock” the dagger tightly into the wielder’s grip, particularly when wearing armoured gauntlets. This locked grip allowed the wielder to strike with great force, particularly in an overhand grip, emphasizing the dagger’s principle role of punching through mail and the articulations of plate armour.

The length of the dagger should be just to the elbow, with an edge and two corners. The grip should be the length of the fist, as the shape is shown depicted here below.

Filippo Vadi of Pisa, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi (c.1482)

The blade is less clearly defined, and can be double-edged, single-edged or even edgeless, turning the dagger into a giant ice pick! All are quite long, as the above quote from Vadi shows, and taper to acute points, since the emphasis is on thrusting. In general, however, there are several forms of rondel that are more common then others. The first and most common is single edged, with a thick, blunted spine, which may or may not flatten into a small “false edge” for the last two or three inches of blade length. The second is hollow-ground, triangular (“two-cornered”), and edgeless (or nearly so), designed specifically for punching through armour. Sometimes the last few inches of these blades flatten into a more traditional profile, giving the dagger a narrower surface at the point of impact for finding purchase. The third form is also a glorified punch, but seems to have been rare, and was of round or quadrangular cross-section. Finally, rondels do appear with a more traditional, double-edged dagger blade, but these seem to have been the rarest of all.

The techniques for using -- and defending against -- the dagger are equally suited to armoured and unarmoured combat.
The techniques for using — and defending against — the dagger are equally suited to armoured and unarmoured combat.

The sword was carried on the left hip while the daga/pugnale was worn on the right. There were a number of ways in which it the dagger might be carried and suspended. In civilian wear, the dagger was worn on the waist belt, with or without a sword, usually beside or behind the purse. It could be hung vertically, horizontally or at an angle in between, as the owner preferred. If a sword was not worn, the dagger and purse might be rotated forward, even to the center-front of the torso. In armour, the dagger was often attached directly to a metal “plaque belt” or to the fauld of the armour, and again could be suspended either vertically or horizontally. During the 14thcentury, the dagger was sometimes attached to the body armour by a long leading chain, so that, even if it slipped from the hand upon being drawn, it could not be dropped. By the end of the century this fashion had faded away, and as the plaque belt disappeared in the 15th century, in armour the dagger began to be worn on either a narrow waist belt, or directly on the sword belt. In the 16th century, the dagger was often worn at an angle at the right side, or across the back, with its hilt turned to the left, both of these methods facilitating a left-hand draw, as the sword was drawn with the right.

Cod.1324_33r
Two techniques against a forehand dagger blow (Fiore dei Liberi’s First Remedy of the Dagger) as represented by Filippo Vadi of Pisa.

USE OF THE DAGGER IN ARMIZARE
Dagger combat, both unarmed against a dagger and with a weapon of one’s own, builds directly upon the lessons of abrazare, and forms the single largest section in each of the various copies of il Fior di Battaglia. The nearly 80 “plays”, or techniques, that encompass the dagger section are organized into nine Remedies — specific defenses against a particular type of attack. For example, the First Remedy teaches how to defend against a forehand blow with a dagger in a reverse or “ice-pick” grip, while the Third Remedy details how to defend against a backhand blow from the same grip. The Eighth and Ninth Remedies work against rising thrusts in a forehand grip, while the Fifth Remedy introduces how to defend if the student is first gripped by the attacker — a “mugging” scenario familiar in modern self-defense classes. Other Remedies demonstrate how to defend against attacks with the arms joined for more strength, for specifically fighting in armour, or for when one has already drawn their own dagger.

All dagger instruction is built around five principles, applied in order:

  1. Disarm (Disarmato)
  2. Strike (Ferrire)
  3. Lock (Ligadura)
  4. Break (Rompere)
  5. Throw (Mettere in Terra)

The combination of these five actions allows him to introduce a complete curriculum of not only knife-fighting, but unarmed combat at striking range, joint-locks and arm-bars, entering techniques from out of distance to create throws and a series of disarms that will be used not just in close-quarter combat, but with longer weapons, such as the sword or pollaxe.