L’Azza (Poleaxe)

Alphabet - Iam the axe, heavy, cruel and lethal, and I deliver bigger blows than any other handheld weapon. If I miss with my first attack, the axe becomes a useless liability. But if I don’t miss, my axe can come to the rescue of any other handheld weapon.

Fiore dei Liberi, il Fior di Battaglia

The poleaxe (or pollaxe) was one of the principle “knightly” weapons of the 14th – 16thcentury, and is related to the “common” halberd. Amongst the Italian masters, its use is detailed in the works of Fiore dei Liberi, Filippo Vadi, Pietro Monte and the Anonymous Bolognese master, all of who simply call it l’azza or l’acca (the axe).

A weapon designed for use specifically in and against armour on foot, the poleaxe first begins appearing in illustrations in the mid-14th century, slowly gaining favor over the older two-handed “battle axe”, whose pedigree extended back to the Viking era. It was commonplace by the end of the 1300s, and was a preferred weapon for performing judicial combats and feats of arms during the 15th century. Although its popularity began to wane in the Renaissance, its popularity in the tournament lists lingered; as late as the 1620s, Francesco Postolfilo detailed its use in his book, Il Torneo.

The weapon can be divided into several parts, the haft (asta), the head, which was in reality a conglomeration of weapons, and the heel (pedale), which could be simple wood, but was often shod with iron or fitted with a long spike (calcio). As a response to plate armour, the poleaxe seems to have grown out of two other weapons: the aforementioned two-handed axe and the warhammer, and its head developed along two distinct forms. The first was an axe proper, with an axe-blade, whose profile could be straight or curved. The blade was generally somewhat thicker and smaller than those found on the halberd. The second form replaced the axe blade with a smooth or pronged hammerhead, like that of a warhammer, the prongs increasing the chance of biting into the armour.

armizare_academy_2012_11Regardless of hammer or axe head, the weapon was known as a poleaxe, and the masters at arms taught a single method for its use. And regardless of axe or hammer, the rest of the weapon followed a single, common form. The other side of the head was usually a long, hooked spike (called a “beak” or “horn”; Italian: corno), and was topped by yet another spike, which could be either a tapered and edged spear-head or a simple spike of round or square cross-section. The head was attached to the haft by a pair of long iron strips, called langetes, which added security and protected the haft from being broken by other polearms. The haft was also often fitted with a rondel below the head, protecting the lead hand.

The overall length of the weapon could vary considerably. Fourteenth century art suggests a weapon of 4-6 feet [1.2-1.8 m] in length, and this accords with the weapons shown in dei Liberi’s treatises. Vadi illustrates a weapon slightly longer than the wielder, and later writers, such as Monte (1509) and Pistolfilo (1620s) recommend a weapon approximately eight feet [2.4 m] in length. The weight of surviving specimens suggests a weight of 4 – 6 lbs [1.8-2.7 Kg], creating a weapon surprisingly well counterbalanced; poleaxes often feels notably handier and nimble than the related halberd.

Like all knightly tools, poleaxes could be beautifully decorated with etchings and piercings, their elegance belying their deadly purpose.

In discussing the poleaxe, dei Liberi jumps straight into the poste without any sort of preamble. The guard themselves are an interesting conglomeration of stances from both two-handed and armoured swordsmanship. There are very few surprises here, with each reiterating lessons they have taught previously, with other weapons, although breve lo serpentina warns that with the poleaxe even armour is no sure defense from its point, “which can penetrate breastplates and plackards.”

Fol 36vThe individual plays for the axe are based around a single Remedy Master who shows the two combatants with their weapons crossed at the mid-points, much as we’ve seen with the sword. But whereas the swords crossed with the points up — as if concluding a half-blow — here the axes have their heads on the ground. The text reads:

These are the plays through which these guards fight. Each guard wants to try them, in the certainty of winning. If you can beat the opponent’s axe to the ground as shown, by all means do these plays. Do all the plays as long as the opponent does not stop you with a counter.

armizare_academy_2012_17So whereas Fiore has already shown to how play from these six poste and come to a point-up bind in the the two-handed and armoured sword teachings, we now have a new tactical situation: the axe has enough forward weight and momentum that the weapons can be carried to the ground. This requires new instruction, and thus, a new Remedy Master. Most of the plays that follow come from this low crossing, which is itself just another variation of the position that emerges from the Breaking of the Thrust taught with the sword in two hands.

Axeplay instruction is completed by showing a transition to wrestling made by grabbing the opponent by his helmet’s visor and pulling him to the ground, followed  by the strangest section in the manuscript: a pair of plays using a strange pollaxe fitted at the heel with a weighted rope and topped with a hollow head filled with “eye melting powder”; the recipe for which Fiore helpfully then provides!